Augmented reality enhances the real world. Virtual reality offers an escape from it. Both technologies may eventually change our lives, but for now they’re mostly fun. Here’s what they can, can’t, and may soon do.
To experience VIRTUAL REALITY, you put on a headset and your entire environment is replaced by whatever the headset is projecting. You can’t see the room you’re in. Suddenly, whether you look up or down or side to side, you’re on a roller coaster, or at the beach, or at a Paul Mccartney concert.
THE BASIC SET-UP
▶ A headset with screens that, for each eye display, offsets right and left images that trick your brain into seeing depth, same as a 3D movie. Motion sensors allow your view to change as you look around. Additional hand controls with motion sensors let you grab, hold or throw objects in the VR world. And tethered sets (attached to a PC and power source) can use wall-mounted sensors to map and track your movements around a room.
▶ VR can make you feel sick. But the faster a headset refreshes its images, the less likely you are to feel motion sickness. More powerful tethered units, such as the HTC Vive and the Oculus Rift, run at least 90 frames per second. Mobile VR, with less processing power, tops out at 60 fps and usually operates at 30.
▶ Relatively simple games and programs: crashing cubicles (Job Simulator), painting in 3D (Tilt Brush), dodging bullets (Superhot VR).
Interactive VR is not like our reality. It’s safely on the Minecraft side of the uncanny valley, with video games on the most powerful devices often looking like a crisp version of N64 graphics because of the graphic processing power required for your tracking and movements.
▶ VR on a phone-based headset is largely immobile. Tethered VR, which can move around a small room, has the power of graphics cards that alone cost as much as a phone. Lacking that power, mobile VR is limited to processing the turning of your head.
▶ Medical treatment, automotive prototyping, astronaut training. At the University of Washington Harbourview Burn Centre, burn victims use VR headsets during procedures so painful, morphine isn’t effective. Researchers there believe VR reduces pain to manageable levels by immersing the brain in another world and leaving fewer mental resources to process pain. Newer studies have found positive results in wound care, chronic pain and the dentist’s chair.
HOW APPLE WILL OWN IT
▶ VR, like AR, is waiting for an affordable device that offers an immersive experience. There’s no hero device on the horizon, says Scoble, but it’ll probably be a phone – albeit significantly more powerful than today’s options. “Tethered devices require (expensive) gaming PCS. Not everyone needs those, but they do need phones.” Again like AR, he adds, our best bet is the next iphone release.