I expect 2022 to be a breakthrough year for virtual reality, augmented reality and other forms of expanded realities. The technology is advancing rapidly and becoming less expensive and more accessible. Not long ago, immersive experiences were available to larger audiences only at large-scale entertainment parks, such as Universal or Disney World, and gaming conventions, but now you can have unique virtual experiences in your home with little to no setup.
Big advances have been made in headsets. Over the past year, we’ve witnessed the release of several standalone devices, including Oculus Quest 2, HTC VIVE Focus 3 and Microsoft HoloLens 2, that are cheaper and more consumer friendly. The pandemic has played a significant role in driving this trend as people have been stuck at home and want to connect with others beyond telephonic conversations and video chatting platforms. They are eager for new experiences that enable them to virtually travel to places in VR without being vulnerable to COVID.
Consumers have had a taste of immersive, interactive media through their computers and phones as realtime computing has become faster, but these new headsets extend immersion much further, allowing for untethered, six degrees of freedom within your room. Hand/gesture tracking liberates the user from hand-held controllers and some headsets include a wider field of view. These improvements, alongside quality enhancements, such as higher resolution and display refresh rates, make it possible for people to interact with virtual worlds more like the real world. That’s where VR takes flight.
As a result, you are going to see many more virtual reality games developed for the consumer market that engage with the user in exciting, new ways, allowing players to enter game environments and enjoy a deeper, more satisfying experience. Yet immersive gaming is only one example of how this technology is going to change our world. Its potential outside the sphere of entertainment is even more exciting.
For instance, virtual reality is a wonderful tool for creative collaboration. During the pandemic, we’ve all taken part in Zoom meetings with colleagues and clients, and while that’s been necessary to keep working, video conferencing platforms are limited communication mediums that restrict users to only two forms of sensory connection - audio and visual - and to the confines of rectangular screens. For creative teams engaged in hours of brainstorming or tackling complex problems as a group, this limited medium can be more taxing than productive.
XR collaboration offers a much better alternative. Users exchange ideas within virtual environments that can be tuned for the kind of work being managed. Over the past several months, I’ve spent a lot of time with friends and colleagues in virtual environments. Communicating while playing kinetic games like table tennis takes us away from our table and chair work setups. We’ve also gone on virtual museum tours to spark creative discussions and relaxed through virtual group fishing. It’s liberating and fun, feels natural and breaks through the barrier that staring at a computer screen creates.
With applications such as Horizon Workspaces on the Quest 2, you can build collaborative rooms with round tables, side desks or even auditorium environments where each user’s virtual avatar occupies its own space and can interact with others in the room in productive ways. Users who don't have access to VR headsets or are on the move can enter these workrooms using a typical Zoom app, bridging the gap between non-VR users.
VR is also going to have a big impact on healthcare in various ways. Many doctors have reduced in-person visits with patients to avoid risks to themselves and others, meeting with them via phone and Zoom instead, but this, in turn, sacrifices connection with their patients. Again, virtual reality offers a solution because it allows doctors and patients to interact as if they were in the same room. As technology advances and hardware costs continue to fall, you will see mixed reality applications that will allow doctors to provide patients with prescriptions, show them how to use medical devices and carry out other tasks that now must be done in person.
Similar changes are in store for industries as diverse as automotive, defense, retail, education and entertainment. Immersive media is going to have a profound effect on our future and help shape our world in ways difficult to imagine. For those of us who are innovating in this space, it is paramount to create intentionally so as to leverage the immense power of this medium to do more good than harm. We are on the cusp of a paradigm shift driven by immersive technology, and we are already making great strides in that direction.
Ninaad Kulkarni is the Creative Director of Immersive at Nice Shoes (www.niceshoes.com).