Nearly two decades ago, innovators at Linden Lab imagined millions of people arriving in a virtual place. Second Life, as the project was dubbed, collapsed under the weight of lofty expectations — but its legacy remains a pool of light for those boldly going forward to a new manifest destiny: Virtual Space.
Virtual Space is a place of the future whose time has come. Made possible by the increasingly sophisticated technologies of virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), mixed reality (XR) and artiﬁcial intelligence (AI), Virtual Space enables us to live and work in a simulated universe that looks and feels like our physical world but without the earthly restrictions of time and space.
The result: better work, collaboration, creativity and self-actualization through more immersive, more valuable and more virtually genuine experiences.
While gamers, engineers, product designers and equipment maintenance experts have reveled in this freely immersive environment for years, never has Virtual Space been more appealing to the rest of us than in today’s pandemic-induced reality. Zoom, Microsoft Teams and similar tools have magnified our desire for new and better ways to connect for a (virtual) night on the couch with family and friends, or with co-workers around the watercooler. In short, many of us are ready to rip a hole in our actual reality and step into a virtual one.
What’s the reality of mixed reality?
Views on the viability of Virtual Space are decidedly mixed. In recent researchfrom the Cognizant Center for the Future of Work, half of respondentssay AR will be considered a mature technology in 18 months to three years, while the other half believe it will take three to ﬁve years.
Skepticism is understandable; after years of pilots and false starts, VR and AR are sometimes seen as a solution in search of a market, a “diminished reality” in which glitzy possibilities disappear in a speculative buzz.
And to be sure, VR technologies still face major limitations, including head-mounted displays (HMDs) that completely block the user’s view; experiences that induce nausea; and spatial challenges that, among other things, may result in users running into walls. This is where AR technologies have an advantage, as their HMDs allow for a continuous view of both the virtual and real worlds. AR headsets also allow users freedom of motion and the ability to remain productive with other tasks. Nevertheless, most HMD technologies (whether VR or AR) are still limited by such factors as the weight of their headsets.
While many observers think Virtual Space won’t really come of age until the likes of Tim Cook or Mark Zuckerberg release HMDs that are sleek, aﬀordable and untethered, it’s diﬃcult to ignore the growing number of companies generating real results from investments in Virtual Space. (And when you hear Cook or Zuckerberg talk about their visions for Virtual Space, you’d do well to pay attention.)
A future in immersive 3-D
The ﬁrst advanced flight simulators debuted in the 1950s. Top oil companies have had technologically powerful, immersive, in-the-round modeling capabilities for years, allowing drillers, geologists and engineers to plan extraction to the nearest subterranean inch. Automotive designers on either coast collaborate on models, walk through virtual factories and “see” each other’s avatars.
These examples portend a future in which every job, every journey — really, every experience — might do the same with ﬁnely pixelated, immersive 3-D detail.
So how far oﬀ might we be from an expansive virtual universe such that in Ready Player One? As both the book and ﬁlm envision, AI-driven “journey experience services” will suggest — as Pandora or Spotify do today with music — the perfect “genome” of the things you see, interact with, decide and experience during your journeys of personal time, as well as those that wrap around work and work processes. (Understanding where, when and how that happens is explored in our report, "Augmenting the Reality of Everything.")
Included will be the setting, information, tone, characters, suggested things or experiences to buy, side-destinations to take, friends to include, and more.
From concept to reality
The case studies available today are already impressive. Leading companies in the ﬁlm, travel, healthcare, retail, automotive, education and heavy equipment industries are getting real results.
Take Strivr, the once-niche VR platform for football quarterbacks, which is now helping employees in many post-pandemic sectors learn from simulated scenarios so they can safely prepare for live interactions. One of Strivr’s biggest implementations is at Walmart, where at least a million employees across 5,000 locations have used VR headsets to practice both their soft and hard skills, like loading the company’s new vending machines for in-store order pickups.
In healthcare, platforms like AccuVein are helping phlebotomists “see” subcutaneously through skin using AR — so they don’t have to repeatedly poke patients.
Conservation International produced “Under the Canopy" in fully immersive VR to educate people on the natural wealth and sensitive lands of the Amazon.
PORTL’s phone-booth-sized machines can transmit live holograms — via “holoportation” — right into your room.
What could go wrong?
In the adoption of Virtual Space, data privacy and ethics are key concerns. It’s understandable that when arcane technological discussions around mixed reality elicit phrases like “eyeball tracking,” people get nervous. The prospect of someone learning about you by measuring each scintilla of eyeball movement during a VR interaction takes concerns about digital surveillance to a whole new level.
We believe some of these fears are overblown; Microsoft, for example, maintains that newer versions of its HoloLens use on-device eyeball tracking merely as a way to compensatefor the otherwise herky-jerky, and nausea-inducing, latency of centralized servers rendering images to the device.
But wearables, like smartphones, are capable of tracking user behavior down to the most minute detail. End users need to feel safe, so privacy and ethical guardrails are necessary, proper and essential concerns that are everyone’s responsibility. Given the mixed track record of digital ethics in, say, social media to date, potential coercion and exploitation in Virtual Space remain concerns.
In spite of the reasonable skepticism and thorny issues noted above, with each passing day, the potential beneﬁts of Virtual Space become clearer. Successful strategies and outcomes (better, faster, cheaper, more accurate, more experiential) will be ampliﬁed, and value realized with immersive, spatial computing — launching us into Virtual Space.