“People call virtual reality an empathy machine,” said Bernie Roehl, lab instructor and software specialist at University of Waterloo. The two of us sat down at a William’s café and dove into the possibilities of the emerging virtual revolution.
Virtual reality is opening up countless possibilities and with its rapid growth, I found myself hungry to know how far this mesmerizing, Asimov-like tech has come — and how far it can go.
Roehl started off our discussion with the affects virtual reality technology could have on a humanitarian stage. He explained that an expanded paradigm, showing new cultures and diverse parts of the world without actually having to be there, heightens your sense of empathy for people in different geographical areas. Virtual reality can expose you to new modes of life and could allow you to literally and figuratively see everything in new ways.
In other words, high-resolution headsets can ultimately unite a social and environmental perspective — an engaging thought that takes a few steps beyond virtualized laser-tag.
Chances are, this isn’t the first you’ve heard of the impact that VR technology could make, potentially blurring the line between digitalization and our own experiences. But it goes deeper than what we might have anticipated.
Today, virtual reality is not only creating new thresholds for gaming and exposure to untouched charters, it can accelerate everything from how we’re educated to how we’re trained in the workforce.
“If you were a medical doctor, nobody wants to be the patient for a surgeon’s first operation. We don’t want a new, inexperienced, fresh off the boat kind of surgeon — we want someone who’s been practicing for a long time. But every surgeon has to have a first surgery,” Roehl explained.
“The more we can train them in a simulation, the better. They go in with not only the skill, but also the confidence that they know what they’re doing when they get on to a real patient. The same goes for airline pilots. I mean, flight simulators have been around for decades. Putting them in a virtual cockpit, in a virtual world around them, flying a virtual plane so they could gain the skills they need. If they crash, they crash in simulation. Not in the real world.”
VR can take a pivotal role in simulations for military combat, fire-fighting, law enforcement and just about any occupation where the stakes are high. With intricate, life-like simulations, people could be thoroughly trained through demanding circumstances, without the risk of danger.
But what about professions that aren’t considered high stake?
The tech has led to an educational launching pad, with all-new, immersive displays of information that can take us further in countless fields of research.
“Museums are thinking about using VR to show people artifacts that they would otherwise not be able to see,” said Roehl.
Stepping past the old-school rules of ‘look, don’t touch,’ VR will allow museums to install an all new level of interactive exhibition without any risk of damage.
“You could go on a virtual archeological dig and discover artifacts in the ground. You could go on a field trip anywhere in the world, or anywhere in the universe. You want to have a trip on the surface of Mars? No problem. You want to have a field trip inside a human cell to see how it works? No problem.”
In this sense, VR is accelerating how we research our own planet. Archeologists, mathematicians, nuclear physics, you name it. From firing an AK-47 to analyzing the details of cancer cells, access to information has never been so powerful. Simply put, we’ve come a long way from equations on a chalk board.
For simulated operations, Roehl went on to explain that some virtual reality training would have to go beyond the visual experience.
“When they’re cutting through skin and cutting through bone, the physical feedback in their hand is really important to know what they’re doing. There is hardware that will do that — you could hold a physical scalpel and it could give you [vibrating] resistance as you use it. That kind of technology is starting to become available. For combat simulations, you want to simulate being able to move over a large area. Most VR systems are great within an eight-foot by eight-foot area, but if you want to be out there on the field, you’ll need a whole new level of technology for tracking someone in a large area.”
I asked him how far beyond the visual experience VR will ultimately be able to go. Roehl explained that some companies are working on mechanisms that introduce the physical experience within VR.
“Imagine a jointed lamp on a smaller scale with a surgical scalpel button. As you move it around, they have little motors in it that change the amount of force that’s applied — it gets harder and it gets easier. The computer can actually control that physical resistance.”
One of the leading hardware companies for virtual and augmented reality is IMMY Inc. They design, develop and manufacture some of the most advanced tools for VR and AR (augmented reality) in the industry. Their CEO, Doug Magyari, took the time to speak to me and agreed that the technology will radically change multiple areas of the workforce in the coming years.
“I do believe it will change every single industry. VR will change countless careers, but there’s been hyper-criticism on implementing proper training,” Magyari explained.
“Training material needs to be introduced through what’s called, ‘in-context.’ Let’s say you’re doing flight maintenance off of helicopters [in a simulated virtual reality]. You need the environment to realistically match the dimensions of a hangar. The audio needs to be properly recorded and received as if the person is actually there.”
Magyari explained that auditory cues create essential anchoring points that help people recall and remember instructions with far more accuracy. Therefore, when a worker enters a real-life situation, their training will kick in, depending on prompted noise and visuals. If the sound cues are inaccurate in simulation it can cause problems when the user enters real life situations.
“There’s a lot of different aspects for how you use these technologies to get these benefits out of them,” said Magyari.
“Virtual reality is when you’re fully immersed in a different kind of environment, like a movie or a video game; you’re not utilizing your outside surroundings,” explained Daniel Gottfried, director of business development at IMMY Inc. and recent graduate of University of Waterloo.
“Then there’s the other realm called augmented reality, where you have a transparent pair of glasses. You’re using the real world, but you’ve augmented objects or information into it.”
Gottfried explained that there will be massive developments with industrial jobs through augmented reality. Contrasting the advantages of VR being able to train workers through simulations ahead of time, AR will be able to guide workers through the job first hand.
“Mechanics will be able to receive augmented instructions over the engine of a car,” Gottfried said.
“We can supply signals for disassembling or assembling parts in real time. We can supply step-by-step procedures through visuals, allowing people to take on jobs more efficiently — no matter how complex.”
“With AR, you could be looking at your environment in your line of sight,” explained Magyari.
“You could be looking at some sort of [augmented] overlay on a medical procedure, while you’re actually performing the operation. You can augment what you’re doing, get a different view or a different angle.”
Ultimately, AR can allow us to see the real world, but with informative visuals and prods that expand our visual interpretation.
Imagine Iron Man looking through his heads-up display while comprehensive targets and data flash before his eyes. Yup, one day you could be as cool as Tony Stark.
However, augmented reality isn’t all smooth sailing. AR has been criticised for distracting viewers from environmental surroundings — a commonly recognized example being the epidemic of Pokémon Go, which allegedly led to countless road accidents and trespassing accusations throughout the summer of 2016.
Disorientation and distraction aren’t overly problematic in the confines of an entirely virtual setting, but under the real pressures of the workforce, too much information can be just as blinding as enabling. It’s important that this technology finds a suitable balance between being informative and being overly jarring when the doctor’s performing open-heart surgery in real life. Something tells me the patient would feel the same.
With VR, there’s also the issue of desensitization. Parents already feel uneasy about their kids playing video games like Grand Theft Auto because it supposedly normalizes crime and violence. With VR and AR as a form of entertainment, you aren’t playing the game, you are inside it.
This introduces a whole new problem: a potential confusion between what’s real and fake. With children given the ability to skydive and rock climb in the comfort of their own living rooms, an unnatural belief of invincibility can take hold of their common sense. But hey, people said that when televisions first came out, too.
Some emotions provoked in VR can also amplify realism. Fear, for instance, is strong enough to override logic. That’s the reason YouTube has erupted with videos of old people shouting with headsets on as they drop down a virtual roller coaster, or of people jumping from shock in their kitchens as a shadowed figure appears in a virtualized warehouse. Even with minimally rendered CGI, this stuff can scare the crap out of us.
Some VR gaming taps into that; our minds become momentarily compelled enough to believe we are in danger — sort of like a horror movie jump scare after a character walks through a dark coridor. Similarly, your peripherals are limited to what’s in front of you, and the mere thought of something lurking beyond your field of vision becoms tauntingly unsettling.
While forms of VR and AR entertainment could increase desensitization, make people feel invincible and make us run into walls from horror, Roehl explained that fabricated reality cannot easily become a product; the complexities cannot simply be manufactured or mimicked. At least not entirely in the next years to come.
“Reality is extremely complicated. We’re sitting in a coffee shop right now and there’s a lot of stuff going on. You could just close your eyes and listen to all the different sound sources. There’s music over there, voices, clattering of plates. It’s really complicated and if anything’s a little bit off we’ll know it. If I pick up this sugar container and put it down, if it doesn’t sound the way my brain thinks it should, I’ll go ‘ah, something’s wrong with that,’” he said.
Acquiring adequate detail to blur the line between virtual reality and real life is far away in the progression of this technology, but certainly not impossible. In fact, while advancing other sensory instruments, some developers believe it could happen — at least visually — in the next twenty or thirty years.
After all, if we look at how much computers have progressed since the 90’s, we should really buckle up: our tech is in for a hurtling ride of rapid evolution.
With these implications in mind, is blurring the line more problematic than beneficial?
As the technology continues to integrate throughout our education, our jobs and our interactions, I guess we’ll have to wait and see. Stay tuned folks. Humanity will never be the same.