Wednesday, September 23, 2015

The flawless virtual world is only a few years away?

Could we one day find that when we dip our fingers in virtual water, it actually feels wet?
Maybe I am merely experiencing the old adage that the world we see is the world that we want to see.  And maybe that is why I am coming across one too many essays and news reports on the rapidly advancing technologies and, therefore, the implications for the future.  But then, maybe it is not my bias--it is all for real, which means that you too should be worried.

That quote is from this piece in the Atlantic, on how virtual reality is getting real.  Touching virtual water and feeling our fingers getting wet is apparently one of the examples "known as the haptics problem, to be the holy grail of virtual reality."  Smell, sensations in the skin, taste, are all in this category.
But that doesn’t mean it’s insurmountable. “I’m confident we’ll do it within our lifetimes,” Palmer Luckey, the founder of Oculus, told me. “There are no fundamental physical laws that prevent us from building something that’s almost perfect.” Laidlaw is less optimistic—he thinks that creating lifelike haptics will take 100 years—but he agrees that a virtual world may one day be a nearly perfect simulacrum of the real one.
Oculus is the virtual reality technology leader, for now:
the much-anticipated Oculus Rift headset is expected to arrive in stores in early 2016, followed closely by several other devices.
This is only the beginning, of course.
“Right now, it’s like when you first had cellphones,” Richard Marks, one of the lead engineers working on Project Morpheus, Sony’s virtual-reality headset, told me. “A lot of focus is still on the most-basic things.”
You remember those early mobile phones?  Huge and bulky and awkward?  And how rapidly it "evolved," right?

Apparently all the publications I subscribe to are conspiring to feed me VR stories. Yes, it is all about me! ;)  The New Yorker reports about the latest from "Howard Rose, the soft-spoken C.E.O. of a company that designs virtual-reality environments"
Rose also helped create SnowWorld, in which snowballs, snowmen, and flying fish distracted burn patients during painful wound dressings and stretching procedures.
After asking for a swivel chair and more ice, Rose introduced Cool!, a successor to SnowWorld. A player of Cool! drifts down the path of a river, Rose explained. “It’s a kind of Jungian thing. Nobody asks, ‘Why am I on a river?’ It’s, ‘Oh, I’m going down a river.’ And there are otters: we use otters because otters are endearing—pretty nonthreatening.”
 How powerful is VR?  Rose has a human put her right hand in a real bucket of ice.  
The idea, he explained, was to see how long she could stand it, and then see how long she could stand it while lost in Cool!. Ice ache was standing in for more violent pain.
Get it?  You can already see where this is going.  In the real world versus when being completely drawn into VR.  
For fifty-two seconds, nobody spoke; there was the roar of air-conditioning and, faintly, in the D.C. café, a shrieking toddler. Gummer took her reddened hand out of the ice. Rose warmed it under a heat lamp. He then helped her put on a virtual-reality headset and headphones. ...
After two and a half minutes, Gummer took her hand out of the ice again. Rose said that such a result—three times the resilience—is fairly common in both informal and more rigorous tests.
Such technologies can be put to good use, of course, as in treating patients with intense pain and phobias and PTSD and more, where fooling the brain is a good therapeutic strategy.  But, we know enough from experience that technological advancements are not merely for constructive uses.  Siri to Samantha to Ava are the kinds of examples that I have already discussed in this blog.  Add Oculus Rift and "haptics" to all that.  We will rapidly redefine what it means to be human--the question that I often raise in this blog.
in 50 or 100 years we might develop a brain-machine interface that taps directly into the nervous system.
Perhaps then we’ll find that rather than jacking in for a while and calling it quits, we can, like Alice, move wholly into a Wonderland where the laws of the prosaic world (gravity, aging) no longer apply. Virtual reality could then become akin to the Singularity, a concept described by Ray Kurzweil, a futurist and Google engineer, among others: a way for our minds to separate from our bodies and, uploaded into a digital realm, live on even as our physical selves grow old and die.
A brave new world, indeed!


Anne in Salem said...


I love the potential good of VR - diminishment of pain, perhaps even reduction of anesthesia and narcotics, distraction. Too bad labor and delivery can't be outsourced to VR! Even this Pollyanna can see the potential downsides. I will stay tuned to this blog for updates.

Sriram Khé said...

Yes, technology offers a bunch of good, and a whole bunch of bad too ... The good thing for me is that I will become "virtual" well before VR becomes big time ;)

Ramesh said...

Lets focus on the good.The possibilities in medicine have already been mentioned. I for one would love to roam virtually in the universe - go to the planets, go to the nearby starts, see a supernova, go near a black hole, etc etc .

As it has been always in the past, technology is a double edged sword. It all depends on how we use it. Nuclear science is a great example. I am confident of mankind's ability to evolve to use the good more than the bad. Its always been that way - for survival is ingrained in our genes and as a species we would do our best to survive.

Sriram Khé said...

You pro-market people are always way more optimistic than people like me. I am immensely more optimistic than the likes of Roy and Chomsky ;)

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