Don't Look Down

Thoughts On Tech

Immersive technology, and why it really matters

With CES and MWC in the bag, and SXSW feverishly under way (at time of writing), the Immersive Reality Technology (IXT) hype, and hyperbole, is at its annual high. And it's exciting. Very. But as the movers, shakers, investors and makers strap-in and hold tight, there's rarely a more appropriate time to remind ourselves that at the end of all these shiny new toys, are Humans. You. Me. Customers, players, users, stakeholders, staff etc. And without them and their custom, it's all just, well, snazzy head-sets and flailing arms.

It's surprisingly ironic that technologies so rooted in improving and embellishing the human experience, are rarely written or talked about in terms of exactly how and why they matter, on that level.  The same goes for planning. The all too frequent approach of jumping in top-down, from either a format (VR/AR/MR) or sector perspective, is counter-intuitive. If our goal is to build apps, products or experiences using IXT, that translate into better and stronger value exchanges between us and our audiences, then logically our point of departure should be who that audience is, and a forensic understanding of how we can use IXT to make their lives better; easier, happier, more productive and fulfilled. These are, after all 'assistance' technologies. And the thing that they are ultimately assisting, is Us.

Social media's accidental (and dark) genius is its turbo-charging effect on humanity's hive-mind, whilst simultaneously installing a limitless source of serotonin and oxytocin on every PC and smart-phone across the planet.  It matters, because it works at a very deep, human level. 

So in the same token - stratospheric growth predictions, rampant VC confidence and tech behemoth activity aside - what can be said of IXT? Why does all this tech really matter, and why is it not going away, anytime soon?

 Human is as Human does

The original motive behind all this was simply to investigate plausible answers to this question of 'mattering', and why, beyond what it can do and how much money it will make everyone, is IXT destined for the same status afforded to the 3 platform waves before it. Yet it quickly evolved into something much more useful; an honest set of criteria, with which to hypothesise, plan and test the respective virtues of an AR/VR/MR venture. Human-up, vs Tech-down. I hope you get the opportunity to put them to similar use.

1. They will make our lives easier 

Anything that reduces friction and makes our lives easier, always wins. We have a strong history of willingly exchanging data for the utility afforded by new technology, despite the surveillance and security implications.  IXT's are the ultimate physics hack. They nullify the traditional barriers of complexity, scale, gravity, and even time. Unlocking new ways of doing what were once impossible (or very complicated) tasks, with the net effect of making our lives unimaginably more efficient, and simple.  

When it comes to car maintenance you either can or you can't. For those that can't (me included), AR car maintenance apps are a gift from the immersive gods. Practically every OEM has a version now, but for a solid case study, check-out this Hyundai demo:

Automotive OEM's making their customers lives easier is just one example. Even a light investigation into the human friction points across your business (don't just think customers) will highlight myriad of opportunities to start testing how IXT based solutions can be used to solve them. 

2. They will help us learn better and faster

Using IXT in education can transform learning, across every subject. Whether it's entirely new forms of holographic learning, augmenting existing print formats to stimulate interactivity, or using VR to travel through time and hack complexity to learn through fascination, the implications and opportunities are extraordinary. 

The CWRU, Hololens demo below is well trodden in the industry, but it's well trodden for a reason. It's a perfect example of how IXT - in this case, MR - can transform how we learn. Listen carefully...

Beyond this, Google has been well invested in IXT education for a while now through it's Expeditions platform and if you managed to visit BETT this year, you'll have noticed the overwhelming amount of IXT based edutech on display.  (NOTE: IXT and education is a vast subject and will get a separate post on here soon).

One could argue that education and learning represents the most important driver of IXT technology. As Nelson said; "Education is the single most important weapon we can use to change the world". I hope few would disagree that the world is in dire need of change at this current time. So empowering better, faster learning with IXT, whilst ensuring it's accessible to as many people as possible, feels like an important, if not critical mission. 

3. They will make us feel safer

Improving our collective and personal sense of safety and security, sits at the root of much of the most successful innovation of the last few years. As Brené Brown movingly articulates; “Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change.”  A truism that works as much at an enterprise level, as it does at a personal one.

IXT's are starting to deliver significant payloads in the area of improving human safety. Everysight calls their platform 'The first true AR smart-glasses designed for life in motion'. And whilst the tone of the brand is around performance and utility, the underlying benefit is unequivocally one of safety.  

The same holds true for the plethora of AR way-finding solutions, automotive safety apps like Hudway and this wonderful award-winning app by Novartis, that ultimately makes life a little safer for the visually impaired. 

The near-future opportunity for human-safety enhancing IXT solutions is as vast as it is essential. It won't be long until all our smart devices come with AR chips as standard (keep an eye on Qualcom, Intel and AMD to see what AR capabilities they build into their products), enabled with advanced, full-feature 3D sensing technology and empowered with AI integration. When all these technologies line-up, the implications for improving safety and security across the private, consumer and enterprise spectrum will be unprecented. 

(NOTE: since finishing the first draft of this post, there's been news of a new baby-proofing app in development, that scans living spaces to highlight hazardous objects and provides recommendations on how to make them safe for young children. Mic drop....)

4. They will help us heal

 Rehabilitation assistance, treating persecutory delusions, PTSD and anxiety, stress and sleep management. These are just a few of the remarkable ways in which IXT (VR in particular) is unlocking news ways of helping us heal, and making us better. 

As Yuval Noah Hariri writes in the excellent Homo Deus; (A Brief History Of Tomorrow): "Success breeds ambition (...) having secured unprecedented levels of prosperity, health and harmony, and given our past record and our current values, humanity's next targets are likely to be immortality, happiness and divinity."  Clearly IXT is already being put to work on this front, and proving remarkably effective in the process. 

Despite Virtual Realities current dominance in the healing space, on the back of imminent advances in biometrics, computer vision, object sensing, machine learning and processing, expect to see medical and healing platforms launch across Mixed and Augmented Reality as well, adding further countenance to IXT's role on this front. 

But it's not just healing the individual. IXT is playing an increasingly vital role in healing on a larger, more humanitarian scale, to. One of VR's most powerful roles, is as an agent of empathy. Every major global charity organisation is using VR to transport people intimately into the heart of the stories of the people and situations to which they are committed. Taken so close to the suffering, and having a uniquely first-hand experience of the conditions under which these fellow humans live (thanks to the sense of 'presence' that VR delivers),  invariably has a powerful empathetic effect on the user, and a transformational one on their attitude and intention towards taking supportive action.

Photo Credit: Madi Robson

Photo Credit: Madi Robson

But whilst VR transports us temporarily into these wretched, distant human narratives, the experience is by default, ephemeral. Despite being no less moved by what we experienced, the hum-drum demands of our physical world swiftly lean in against our intention to take that meaningful action. The real-world, contextual nature of AR and MR however, affords us the opportunity to hack this paradox. There must be a way, surely, to bring the plight and conditions of famine and displacement into stark contrast - frequently, visually and with immediate devices for action - against the ways in which we regularly abuse our own, privileged 1st world existence? 

5. They quench our thirst for adventure

Adventure is deeply baked in to our DNA. Granted, I'm using the word with extreme liberalism on this occasion, as a galvanising principal for everything it represents: discovery, escapism, exploration and our relentless need to conquer our fears, goals and curiosity. Nevertheless, we're hardwired to seek the new, explore the impossible and experience the intense, mysterious and the dangerous, and IXT's are proving an excellent means of allowing us to do so. Albeit at considerably less risk (and expense) of the real thing.

'Access' to new forms of adventure, and the previously impossible, underpins much of VR's success during these early stages of growth. Personally, as much as I'd love to, I'll never throw myself out of a plane in a wing-suit, nor will I be diving with Beluga whales under the ice caps, travelling through the ventricles of a human heart, or working on a Space Station 240km's above the earth. But thanks to some brave and excellently produced VR and 360 video content, I've gotten as close as one possibly can, to experiencing what each of those things are like. 

And while VR serves our adventurist needs by giving us access to the unlikely or impossible, AR and MR serves it by giving the unlikely or impossible, access to us, in our physical world. Rendering it more exciting, alive and, well, adventurous.

We can now walk the cities of the world and experience them as they used to look and sound. Battle and conquer aliens and zombies as they burrow out from our living rooms walls. Realise the terrifying scale of the dinosaurs as they roam our gardens. Or discover the majesty our entire galaxy from the comfort of our living room. IXT has unlocked the doors to a new domain of limitless adventure and discovery.

Unsurprisingly, adventure works extremely well in conjunction with other uses of IXT. At the intersection of adventure and education for example, museums and art galleries are unlocking fantastic new ways of immersing their visitors. Google Tango's partnership with the Detroit Institute of Arts a solid case in point.  Whilst the pioneering team at Inde have been leading the pack on large-scale edutainment AR experiences for several years now.

I suspect it won't be long before safety based apps start leveraging adventure in the same way. Eversight for example, could quite easily integrate 3rd party API's to gamify their core experience through locational based discovery and challenges. 

6. And they will bring us (even) closer together

Video chat, and more recently live streaming through Facebook, Periscope and Snapchat has given us a taste of social ubiquity. But whilst we've had the ability to be always on and always there for a while now,  our sense of real proximity to one another has always been limited by the presence of our physical world that surrounds us. IXT however (VR and MR in particular) is about to bring our quest for omnipresence to completion. 

High quality live-streaming in VR already allows us to achieve a sort of telepresence, and there are an increasing amount of social VR platforms out there, enabling users to meet-up, hang out, play games and watch movies together in alternative, virtual environments. 

CNET is calling Rec Room "VR's killer app" Alt Space (Day or night, there’s always someone to hang out with, yikes!) offers a similar option, whilst Sansar (see video below) seems to have launched the first user-curatable social VR platform.

And of course there's Facebooks inevitable dominance in the social VR space, with Oculus already providing social VR hang-out rooms in advance of Zuckerberg's Metaverse.

But whilst these first gen social VR plays are important, the avatars fun and the ability to play games and interact fascinating, accelerated development behind holograms and more advanced forms of volumetric capture is the real proximity game changer. 

In fact 8i is already well advanced in its mission to make photorealistic human holograms available to everyone, and advances in photo and videogrammetry are edging us closer to the promised land of photorealistic, virtual social connectivity. I stress 'edging' as these technologies require stratospheric amounts of data and processing power, way beyond the capabilities of current hardware and wifi infrastructure. 

But it won't be too much longer until we really can meet up with loved ones, friends or colleagues either virtually, or by inviting them into our physical world through MR, with pixel perfect, 3D photorealism. Add in a layer of sensory innovation such as haptic suits, or the implications of the remarkable AIREAL case study out Disney's research labs, and simulating touch won't be too far off either. 

The commercial, cultural and ethical implications of a mainstream social and consumer universe empowered by maturing IXT's, are startling. But as a sector, it remains defined by a challenging degree of ambiguity. The development timeline changes weekly in light of new innovations and it only takes one announcement (thank you, Apple) to set the media on fire, and turn the industry on its axis. 

So in the face of such uncertainty, it not only feels logical, but sensible and empowering to, for brands, organizations and IXT entrepreneurs to deploy their planning and innovation resources around the one thing that can be relied on; Us. And our collective need for better efficiency, safety, education, health, adventure and good old fashioned, togetherness. 

If you're involved in an IXT related project or business venture, and would benefit from some advice, or extra planning or creative support, send me a quick email here