Let’s talk about augmented reality versus virtual reality shall we?
For the past two years the hottest piece of hardware on the planet has been the Oculus Rift. From the Kickstarter success story to a controversial acquisition by Facebook and right up to a featured role in a recent episode of South Park, the virtual reality headset has captured the imagination of the world’s neophiles and tech geeks.
For a while there were those who wanted to craft a marketplace narrative that set up a contest between Oculus VR’s vision of immersive worlds and the augmented reality dreams of Google’s Glass. The thinking being, seemingly, that only one head mounted device is going to wind up finding broad market acceptance.
There seem to be those that instinctively prefer augmented reality to virtual reality and vice versa.
But the Glass project has, according to the conventional wisdom, imploded. In its wake Oculus appeared to be unchallenged, inevitable. You know you’re onto something when Samsung wants to jump on board. Which is exactly what they are doing this holiday season.
That makes the timing of Magic Leap’s emergence into the Technorati’s consciousness very, very interesting.
Magic Leap is a Florida company that has been running dark for a few years now. Sean Hollister at Gizmodo has done an excellent job teasing out the possibilities of what Magic Leap is working on and more importantly who they’re working with. Special effects wizards, engineers who fulfill the mad scientist archetype, big dreamers and venture capitalists with so much cultural sway they can sink companies with a thought.
At the heart of the speculation of what magically does up to is the idea that they can been images directly on to the retina of the eye. It seems, Well, crazy. That’s what this hyperbolic marketing speak from a Magic Leap press release Hollister quotes boils down to:
Using our Dynamic Digitized Lightfield Signal™, imagine being able to generate images indistinguishable from real objects and then being able to place those images seamlessly into the real world.
The level of hype with which Magic Leap speaks and the caliber of investor they have attracted—Google and friends have ponied up half a billion dollars—triggers the “where there’s smoke there’s fire” heuristic.
I want to take a step back first, and look at two big issues I have with this sketch we’re getting of Magic Leap.
First is this idea of beaming images directly onto the retina.
It is becoming clear that we know relatively little about the impact that all of the devices we already use are having on our ocular health. There are researchers who hold that the light from LED powered screens interferes with our ability to sleep. These aren’t amateur scientists who are suggesting this, but guys who used to work for General Electric. You know. The lightbulb people.
Now the problem staring into LED screens for too long is something that Oculus is going to have to face for strapping a screen onto your face. Yet I can’t imagine—and here’s where I have to point out that I am neither a doctor nor a scientist and I don’t even play one on TV—that beaming images onto the retina will somehow be safer than staring at a screen held centimeters from your face. (I would seriously love to have someone explain to me how it would be safer.)
So both VR and AR devices face some serious long-term health questions that we can’t just hand wave away with the magical words “disruption” and “progress.”
What makes me uneasy about Magic Leap’s of vision, the thing that sets it apart from Oculus, is the promise of melding the fictive with the real.
From a narrative standpoint I find this terribly exciting. The idea of slipping in a hyper realistic element into the mundane world pushes all my psychedelic comic fanboy buttons. About two seconds after that happens I remember that Google, an ad company who makes technology in order to serve better ads to more people, are the ones leading the fiscal charge here.
Yes, I know that is the single most cynical way to view Google. I know that the same can be said of Facebook and Oculus, so I’ll say it here: Facebook is also an ad company that makes technology. They haven’t even made technology as interesting as Google has. The difference between an ad laden virtual reality and an ad laden augmented reality is that the latter strikes me as more insidious.
If the images that Magic Leap are able to insert directly on to the retina are indistinguishable from reality, then how would a user know that what they were seeing wasn’t somehow a piece of marketing? Aren’t we already trapped in a world were so much of human endeavor is reduced down to the status of a transaction? Where the activity of the species has become a subset of the market as opposed to the market being a subset of our activity?
Could we find ourselves forgetting, as South Park’s heroes did, that we ever turned on the device at all?
Have you ever had a dream, Neo, that you were so sure was real? What if you were unable to wake from that dream? How would you know the difference between the dream world and the real world? – Morpheus, The Matrix
The odds of the Magic Leap being that good are a longshot. Yet if the visuals are unrealistic the whole experience would fall apart. I don’t want to see 1990s Lara Croft waving at me from across the street, that would take the meaning of Uncanny Valley to new depths.
Virtual reality faces similar commercial quandaries, but here the cumbersome nature of VR is an asset. Entering into VR requires physical effort as well as a conscious one. beyond that VR puts the user in a space that is entirely other, the limits of the real world are left behind. I’ve flown in VR, and that’s something this is just not possible in augmented reality, as real as the images might get. You’d have to overwrite everything in the field of view and once you do that you are—by definition—in virtual reality.
The existential advantage of VR is this ability to shift the user into another world. This puts the encounters that happen into a specific context, one that can be more easily held at a critical distance. Take the unreal into this world and that critical distance begins to erode. It may be exhilarating, but it brings with it a power to manipulate perception that…well that I would trust just anyone with. Not just anyone, and maybe no one at all.