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Silicon Valley's next disruption: Reality!

Mike Elgan | Oct. 20, 2014
We're right on the edge of dual revolutions in artificial reality and augmented reality. It's an exciting time because we're in the final days of a world in which these technologies are considered "futuristic." By next year, early adopters will have them in their homes. Within three years they'll be mainstream.

Google is working on a combination hardware-software technology to be built into smartphones and tablets that maps physical reality in real time. The research initiative is called Project Tango.

Once a room is mapped, one application is virtual reality like simulations and games, but with the real world as the environment. For example, when you look at the screen of a phone or tablet, it might appear as though virtual-reality balls were bouncing down the stairs, and chairs and couches protect gamers from simulated laser beam weapons.

The way to look at Project Tango is that it creates an invisible virtual reality environment out of the real world environment, so the virtual objects interact with the constructed reality while the user still sees the actual reality.

Oculus Rift + Leap Motion

The leading brand, if you will, in the coming consumer virtual reality space is Facebook's Oculus Rift platform. It's available only to developers and other ecosystem builders.

Oculus by itself is straight up old-school virtual reality. But a special project with Leap Motion — a high-fidelity, in-the-air gestures product already on the market — adds reality to Oculus. By bolting a Leap Motion device to the front of an Oculus Rift headset, and mapping hand gestures into to a virtual reality scene, users can see their own hands in the virtual space (of — software can make them gorilla hands, robot hands — you name it), and those hands can manipulate 3D virtual objects in the simulation.

This is the Project Tango idea inside out. Instead of the real world being duplicated to create a hybrid real-virtual environment, the environment is fully simulated but the user is duplicated — or, at least parts of the user.

Microsoft IllumiRoom

Microsoft Research is working on a patented technology that uses projectors to display game play onto the walls, ceiling and floor of a room.

The basic application is that you play some future Xbox game. As is the case today, the main game play happens on a TV screen. Let's say you're playing a first-person shooter in a tropical jungle. IllumiRoom would project the rest of the jungle all over the room — creating peripheral vision to the focused play on screen.

This again challenges the notion of virtual reality. The room is real, but the jungle is virtual and computer-generated.

Casual virtual and augmented reality

The biggest disruption to our long-held expectations about the future of virtual and augmented reality is the casualness with which we'll use it.

All prior visions involved super complicated and expensive hardware. But as of this summer, it's becoming clear that virtual interfaces will be available to the masses at very low cost and with very little difficulty. In fact, they will become something of a banality.


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