If you’re like me, you’re waiting for the day when virtual and augmented reality aren’t just fun buzz words, but a very real part of our daily lives. A time when they’re not just for gaming, but something that will allow you to have experiences that transcend the time and space of where you are.
Don a headset and swim with sharks in the Maldives? Check. Walk through a new apartment without schlepping across Midtown? Sure, why not. Canoodling with strangers on a beach in Ibiza? That’s coming, for sure.
One of my missions at this year’s CES (other than listening to Nick Offerman talk technological masturbation) was to delve into how far VR and AR technology has come using very simple criteria: Is this something I’d actually want to use? Or, is it something that I feel I have to use? And if that meant shoving my face into endless headsets donned by hundreds of strangers that had come before me, then so be it.
I’m here for you, after all.
With that in mind, there were a few experiences at CES that caught my attention due to their concept and spectacle. One was called Hypersuit, from a Paris-based startup, where you lay down onto a horizontal wing suit to fly through a virtual world, sampling extreme experiences like flying off a cliff.
Another bit of VR technology that I got to test drive was Taclim from Cerevo — the “world’s first VR shoes with haptic feedback to enable users to feel the virtual world.” It involved a headset, “gloves,” and the act of strapping my feet into sandals with built-in tactile devices for gaming in virtual locales such as deserts, grasslands, and water. The sensations coming through the base of the shoes felt unique — similar to the squish effect of wandering into water — but overall, it was a bit underwhelming since the shoe straps kept coming undone, leaving my crane kicks ineffective and wide open to proverbial Johnny leg-sweeps.
Probably the most immersive experience I had was with the HTC Vive headset, the Oculus Rift’s chief competitor in the fight for in-room scale virtual reality (VR). Despite heavy anticipation, HTC did not launch a Vive 2 at CES, but that didn’t mean they weren’t everywhere. HTC introduced a Vive tracker at this year’s show, which allows you to turn everyday items such as a baseball bat or golf club into virtual reality props. Simply attach the tracker to the real-world object and voila, you’ve brought that item into a mixed reality world.
One experience I had with the Vive on the CES floor made it my job to control traffic lights and traffic patterns in a downtown city center. It’s safe to say I failed miserably, but it was cool to see how immersive technology has the potential to affect real world change. It also made me realize how important it is for companies to develop content that works with these technologies — because without that, all this technological advancement will be wasted. On that front, HTC is expecting to have close to 3,000 VR titles by the end of the year in their VR app store, Viveport.
The other side of the VR coin is augmented reality (AR), a technology many think will actually be way bigger than virtual reality. (See Apple’s Tim Cook.) One of the big splashes for AR at CES was Osterhout Design Group’s (ODG) first set of consumer-focused products — the R-8 and R-9 — powered by Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 for greater fields of view. “Glasses for the masses” as their CEO put it. They’re designed to be competitors to Microsoft HoloLens and will hit the market in the second quarter of 2017, landing with fairly hefty price tags of $1,000 and $1,799 respectively. For real.
Another trend that seems to be coming is the slimmed down version of not just the technologies but the glasses that will house them. Companies like Lumus build augmented reality tech that is small, smart and slight enough to fit into eyewear you’d actually want to wear in public. Anything that does not require a full headset or bulky goggles is a good thing — so people can leave home without getting mocked, robbed and chased out of a bar publicly. I donned a pair of their Sleek new prototype and got to experience a demo that showed a little green alien getting beamed back to his mothership across a wide field of view — merely by moving my eyes along with the abduction.
Ultimately, what will be here next year at CES is anybody’s guess. But the virtual/augmented reality dream of living in a world where people can see what they want to see, when they want to see it seems like it’s headed in the right direction, though it’s not there yet.
A few things will have to happen before it’s all possible. One, content that people actually want to watch and interact with will need to be produced en masse for the medium to thrive (outside of porn). Two, the sticker shock will need to go away. And three, a more smooth and seamless experience should continue to be developed… so barf bags (like the ones Intel passed out at the live demo for their VR keynote in response to the fact that some people get nauseous after they experience VR) aren’t needed at CES.
Until then, virtual and augmented reality will remain buzz words.
But, hopefully, not for long.