Immersive Reality More than a Mere Pop-Culture Construct

February 1, 2021

Written by Ryan Szporer
Photo of a lady in virtual reality

For such an ambitiously futuristic take on what a fully Immersive Reality (IR) environment can look like, The Matrix wasn’t even released this century. The 1999 science-fiction classic film portrayed life as a simulation so realistic that human characters didn’t even know they were inside. Now, well into the 21st century, technology has advanced considerably, but developing a simulation on such an immense scale currently remains far beyond our fingertips. 

Obstacles in the Way of Immersive Reality 

From a gaming perspective, Juniper Research Lead Analyst James Moar believes the development of technology to realistically simulate impedance literally at our fingertips, to create a realistic sense of touch, is one of the factors holding back the sector. Speaking to 6GWorld™, he called it the biggest technological obstacle in the way of a fully immersive reality up to now. 

“In order to make it a reasonable approximation of reality, you’ve got to have that pressure when you touch something that stops you, but those sorts of technologies are very, very much in early stages. You’ve got several producers of treadmills and full-body haptics and those sorts of things, for the consumer and military training as well, but impedance is really only just coming out of laboratory and testing stages,” said Moar. 

Moar described the lack of a unified platform for the different accessories as being another major issue. 

“It’s a matter of converging the technology, making sure the standards are there so you don’t have to develop individual workarounds for each system that you want your game to use, and then getting the costs down. Those aren’t insurmountable problems,” he said, adding it will take at least a few years before they’re resolved. Moar nonetheless believes, even if a fully immersive reality comes to pass, at least some people will struggle to embrace it as anything other than a simulation. 

Bill Bernstein, who leads the Product Lifecycle Data Exploration and Visualization project at National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST)’s Model-Based Enterprise program, agreed. His work focuses on standards in the field of manufacturing.  

Bernstein, who also chairs the internal Extended Reality (XR) Community of Interest program at NIST, reported how XR serves as umbrella term at NIST for Augmented (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR). He conveyed similar sentiments to Moar’s regarding the need for harmonisation between standards, with XR factoring in as a manufacturing solution in many ways. One example would be AR headsets that can display critical information about machinery in one’s line of sight at any given point in time.  

“I would agree that, in any domain where there is a significant number of standards, this alignment of different perspectives is an issue […] Even within [individual] standards there are harmonisation problems. Some would argue that means that the standard itself is being used a lot: There’s a lot interest and there’s a lot of expansion and there’s a lot of articulation of different perspectives. But even then it gets to the point where it’s hard to maintain an idea of where we started and where we’re going,” he said, adding that a software-based standards development process is being developed to facilitate the process. 

Augmenting Human Capabilities 

All in all, Bernstein believes a fully immersive reality like we’ve seen in pop culture is the wrong way to think about XR’s potential benefits. He argued that, instead of trying to replace our own human-based perceptions, a better approach would be to augment capabilities. 

Bernstein gave an example of how new findings about peripheral vision are opening up new AR use cases. One study Bernstein referenced seeks to show the potential of display devices for increased sensory immersion “through a greater understanding of the functional perceptual properties of the peripheral retina.” 

“Knowing these kinds of vestigial structures and our eye cones within the outer rings of our eyes and understanding that we can sense things that we never knew were possible, I think what XR or the community should do is try to exploit those kinds of capabilities that are beyond what we think of in terms of our five senses,” Bernstein said. 

In fact, while 5G may just be rolling out, 6G could usher in what Ericsson’s Head of Research, Magnus Frodigh, speaking virtually at IEEE 5G++ Summit Dresden, recently referred to as the “internet of the senses.” It theoretically includes enhancements like: 

  • the brain as an interface, whereby messages can be replied to via thought; 
  • earphones that act as a universal translator; and 
  • a device to put in your mouth and enhance the flavour of anything you eat, for improved dietary implications. 

According to Ericsson’s report, such an internet of senses is expected by 2030. Immersive entertainment is seen as the main driver behind the potential technological advancements. 

Part of a Larger Trend in Media & Entertainment 

Stuart Almond, Microsoft’s Industry Director for Media & Telco, pointed to a PricewaterhouseCoopers report which states that VR is the fastest-growing segment of the UK media sector and will be worth more than £1.2 billion by 2022. Almond said VR is part of a larger trend, in which people are looking for more immersive and custom experiences. He used sports as an example. 

“Within seconds I could have my own personalised set of highlights available for me to see and watch back or discuss with a friend or whatever. It’s that kind of immersive personalisation and power and that can only be driven by greater connectivity, lower latency, etc.,” he said, implying it’s just the beginning. 

“We’re on an immersive trajectory across the industry,” he said. “So already we’ve seen elements of real-time data being overlaid in augmented reality for industry as well as consumers, especially in the sports world. We’re seeing broadcasters or media companies take audiences through VR directly to a game taking place somewhere else in the world and be there as an audience member.  

“The trajectory is a lot more on virtualised worlds and what’s possible to take place. Recent headlines of […] Fortnite, the game, allowing users in the virtual world to not only attend concerts or meet up, but now obviously have access to content and media in a virtual world. It’s not really [2018 film] Ready Player One, but the elements of those kind of immersive experiences are already there. They’re already being innovated around at speed in this ‘game.’” 

For the uninitiated, Ready Player One tells the story of a dystopian future, in which everyone escapes to a fully IR “OASIS” to pass the time. However, based on how VR, AR, and IR each have many use cases that span industries aside from entertainment, such as healthcare and manufacturing, it’s more than a mere distraction. In Bernstein’s mind, it’s all a progression. 

“As a kid I was used to living in some virtual space, even if it was just a rolling platform game, a 2D game. I had a sense of where I was and how the controls interacted with this space as I’m watching it evolve,” he said, reiterating how he believes eventually harmonising standards is “far and away the most important thing for full realisation” in smart-manufacturing systems. However, he conceded the human element must also be taken into consideration. 

“That’s certainly a huge factor, basically bringing people up to speed with the technologies and their purpose and I think that’s led to the general perception that the increased automation, especially in manufacturing, will lead to less opportunities for advancement for human workers, which I tend to disagree with […] It’s just going to change the way in which people interact in the workplace,” he said, describing an overall aim of increasing productivity. 

Like Moar, he’s doubtful of a fully immersive reality taking shape. Bernstein nevertheless sees it as at least a possibility. Part of him believes “we’ll get there, because we’ve been able to achieve almost anything else.” 

Feature image courtesy of vectorfusionart (via Shutterstock).

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