Jordan Santell

open web engineer

What Is Virtual Reality?

Notes published

In 2018, I was interviewed about VR technology and industry for What is Virtual Reality?, published by Yoni Binstock as a collection of interviews with VR leaders. Below are my responses and thoughts about VR and the future immersive technology.

What excites you the most about virtual reality?

What excites me the most about VR generally changes every few months -- there's a lot going on and a lot to do. The vast amount of unexplored space in virtual and augmented reality leaves quite a bit to get excited about, like imagining what new forms of social interaction can occur or how different industries will adopt it. What will a VR "video call" look like in 10 years? What effects will immersive journalism have on storytelling and media?

Right now, I'm excited about the complete lack of interface primitives found in XR (umbrella acronym to describe both virtual and augmented reality). For example, every XR experience in which you manipulate an object or teleport has a completely different interface -- there's no go-to gesture or design pattern. Software designed for a keyboard and mouse has had decades of interfaces to leverage, like double clicking, scrolling, and drag-and-drop. XR doesn't yet have the history or feedback to determine what the de-facto "click" is. When mobile touchscreen devices gained popularity, we had a similar period where we all had to adapt to new gestures like pinch-to-zoom or swipe-to-delete. However, touchscreen and desktop interfaces are two-dimensional, physically-limited screens -- immersive environments will have to develop their own interface metaphors, rather than leveraging skeuomorphic flat screens in virtual reality.

It's the wild west of unknowns in terms of how we will interact with these immersive experiences, and it's exciting to know that anyone working in this space could create the new standard gesture or experience. If you ever wanted to be a part of a revolutionary technology in its infancy, like the early internet, now is a great time to get involved and design the future.

What do you recommend for people who want to get in the VR field?

Engineers, artists, and visual designers may have the most obvious background for creating VR content, but since it's a broad and multidisciplinary field, folks with all kinds of experience can contribute. Storytellers, fashion designers, scientists, and teachers all bring a unique perspective and could invent whole new genres of experiences. An educator could devise an immersive way to experience and learn about historical events. As a new medium, we're all still figuring out what works, and we don't know what the "killer app" will be or where it will come from. It's exciting to think about what folks and teams with diverse backgrounds will build that hasn't been done before. What kind of VR application would a team of audio engineers and medical researchers create? An art historian and a web developer? A machine learning expert and a social worker? Who knows, some pretty cool ideas can come out of diverse team with non-obvious collaborations.

Think about the skills you already have and what unique ideas you could bring into an immersive experience. Find others to collaborate with and try out some ideas. Join a supportive community. There are many tools like A-Frame or Unity that make creating VR experiences accessible, whether you're an individual or a small team. While technical experience certainly helps when prototyping, tools are trending towards lowering the barrier to entry for non-developers.

What are your predictions for the VR industry and technology in the next 5, 10, and 25 years?

In the next 5 years, we'll see inside-out 6DOF devices as a baseline, resulting in full room VR powered only by a wireless headset and increased access to XR. Lines will blur between virtual and augmented reality, and AR head-mounted displays (HMDs) will gradually become more sleek and unobtrusive -- more like glasses than headsets. Input will be trending towards hand-tracked gestures, natural voice commands and minimalist controllers, literally shedding hardware between user and experience.

Over the next 10 years, the web will become the largest platform of immersive computing, leveraging its unique strength of linking arbitrary content on an open platform. There will be networks of geospatially anchored web content in the real world. Imagine controllable layers of content driven by real-world context, like directions to a venue or a virtual art installation downtown. The browser user agent will be redefined, increasingly representing our individual preferences and permissions for an immersive world, loading untrusted web content. With the rise of aesthetically fashionable HMDs, societies will eventually decide if, when, and where these devices are socially acceptable.

What happens over the next 25 years in this space will be driven more by variables in society than technological possibilities. Cultures will define their relationship with immersive technology, social intimacy and privacy. Usage will be influenced by states' legislation, or indifference, on data ownership, net neutrality, and corporate regulations. A society's economic equality will determine access to XR, and therefore its creators, direction, and applications. The outcome of each group's sociopolitical decisions will define their relationship with XR, some comfortable with ubiquitous, always-on HMDs in public spaces, and others using VR on an as-need basis, like education and training. Our culture, laws, and technology are all intertwined, and it's important to consider immersive computing within the context of society.

In what ways do you think that virtual reality will be a positive force in our society and in what ways will it be a negative force?

You can walk a mile in someone else's shoes in VR, so to speak. This medium has an opportunity to act as an empathy device, to deliver immersive experiences and allow us to develop different perspectives. Ironically, VR has the potential to help humanity become more human. There already exists applications that engage with our empathy, like journalism reporting on the hellishness of war from a Syrian city under siege, or a first-person experience of living within the United States prison system. In addition to building and fostering empathy, the immersive medium is being used in other ways to make a positive impact. Medical researchers are exploring VR for pain management, therapy and rehabilitation. Educators are devising new teaching tools for the classroom and professional training. Designers are creating ways to allow exploration of a city on the other side of the world.

VR is this inherently intimate and powerful medium, where creators have a responsibility to keep people safe, and do what is Good. A user could unknowingly experience traumatizing content, or an application could be designed for propaganda. We could see an increase in the digital divide if access to immersive computing is not equal. Improvements in AR will raise privacy risks, and could result in ubiquitous devices continuously saving, and possibly uploading, audio and video feeds. Combined with the corresponding advances in machine learning and computer vision, there will be a growing potential surveillance apparatus that threatens civil liberties.

When creating systems, we must always ask, "how can this be used for evil?", and intentionally design against bad actors. We must address these concerns not only from a technical vector, but socially and politically as well. Listen to tech critics, science fiction writers, and groups underrepresented in tech; they raise invaluable questions about this technology that we will need to face.

If there's anything else you'd like to share with my readers about the future of VR, what would you like to say?

It's an exciting space to be in right now. It's empowering to know that a small team from anywhere could invent new genres of immersive experiences, or what will come from combining unexpected fields. Everyone's in discovery mode, figuring out what works, and no one knows for sure what the field will look like in a few years. Every society will have their own relationship with immersive computing, defined by their culture, laws and economy, and we do not yet know all the ways XR will affect our lives. Not only are we capable of creating foundational components and experiences for XR right now, but we're also empowered to design the relationship that immersive computing has in our lives.