Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Virtual Reality: iPhone or Microwave?

It's fair to say that the iPhone, and all the smart phones that followed, have revolutionized our lives.  Microwaves haven't.  I remember when these ovens first became common, my Mum cooked a microwave cake using a temperature probe following a complex recipe involving a temperature probe.  The cake was a flaccid, pale disappointment.  Everyone soon learnt that microwaves weren't going to replace ovens or hobs - they were good for heating up last nights stir fry, doing baked potatoes quickly and pretty much nothing else.

It's clear that there is a lot of media noise about VR at the moment driven by the release of Oculus Rift and the lower spec Google Cardboard.   Column inches are no guarantee of success, so we should be asking will VR be a Microwave or an iPhone technology?  Will it rocket in popularity or fail to impress for the second time?  My vote is for 'meh' rather than 'yay!' and I'll try and persuade you of my point of view by a bit of deconstruction:

Tunnel Vision: To understand what VR does and doesn't offer I need to digress into explaining a bit about your visual system.  Look slightly to the right of the text on whatever device you're reading this on.  Despite being able to see paragraphs and lines you'll find you can no longer read the words.   That's because your vision is made up of a very sensitive zone (the fovea) which takes up half of the nerves that link your eye to your brain.  Around this sensitive centre is a less responsive zone.  You couldn't read the text when not looking at it because of the lack of visual processing power in this outer zone.  Although this part of the eye is less sensitive, it is good at detecting movement; you can prove this by another little experiment - pick something moving in your visual field like a tree in the wind, look away by 60 degrees or so.  In your peripheral vision you should notice the moving branches but will not really 'see' the trunk of the tree.  So your eye really does work like it has a low level of tunnel vision.

The final part of the visual system I want to describe to you is eye movements.  To keep track of what is going on around us (is this lion I see stalking through the grass about to eat us?) our eyes flit around moving the fovea rapidly from place to place in order to track the important things (lion) whilst ignoring other less important objects (grass).  These movements are known as saccades and your brain is so good at processing the patches of high density information that you gain from them that you are largely unaware of your eye movements.  As a result, you have the sense that you are looking everywhere at once despite the fact that you aren't - you're actually sampling the space in high resolution patch by patch and tracking movement everywhere.  This video is a lovely illustration of that fact:

What does VR add?  When we use VR the goggles cover our whole visual field,  not just part of it.  However, when we go on a virtual field trip or watch a film on a non-VR device our eyes direct our fovea to what is being shown on the tablet.  A video of our eyes would show them flicking from place to place in rapid saccades scanning the screen for the most important thing to look at.  The fact that our peripheral vision is looking at the bedroom, bus or library that surrounds the tablet doesn't really matter because we are processing the information we need in our fovea just fine.  So I'm suspicious that VR doesn't really add that much to the information we can gather from a virtual field trip when compared to the same content delivered on, say, a laptop screen.

Immersion:  But gathering information isn't the only benefit that VR is said to produce, it's also said to be immersive.  By this people mean that it produces the feeling that you are actually in the place depicted.  In a recent radio 4 program an example was given where VR goggles were used in a lab to show a full vision simulation of the same lab.  Then the VR floor opens up before the viewer and they are asked to step into the hole - a challenge to the part of their brain that knows what they are seeing is not real to overcome the part that really thinks the Goggles are showing the truth.  Users explained just how compelling they found the illusion and that they were convinced of the power of VR as a result.

I'd raise the question, what about when they get used to seeing 180 surround vision?  Will they still be fooled the 10th time they are asked to step into the hole?  I'd predict that they won't just as they weren't compelled by the magic of the 10th place they'd looked at in Google Earth as much as they were by the first (which was, of course, the roof of their house).  So I'd argue that immersion is the novelty of a new medium that is closer to reality than the media you're used to and that the novelty wears thin quickly.  Lasting impressions are due to quality content rather than the media: reading the words that make up Hamlet is an immersive experience.

So what is VR good for?  I've clearly argued that VR isn't going to be an iPhone technology that dramatically changes the way we live.  However, predicting how a technology is going to develop is clearly foolish - crystal balls don't work.  I tend to think it is more like the microwave, important without being key but, having said that, its impact could be somewhere between the two.  I do predict its going to revolutionize gaming - immersion is such a strong draw in this case.  I also think there are some educational applications for VR in situations where you have to see the wide picture before homing in on detail; examples would be paramedics presented with a crash scene having to triage which patients to treat first and geologists being presented with a cliff section having to find a certain small scale geological feature.  There could be a 'killer app' use we haven't foreseen but I'm not convinced: as a technology it doesn't add to the content because we 'see' mostly through our fovea not the outer zone of our retinas and the immersion effect will only last as long as the novelty does.