Expanding Immersive Experiences

By Dennis Draeger

Virtual reality is back with better graphics, better hardware, and more applications. Several technologies will soon be released to the general market to further immerse mainstream users in their digital experiences while expanding the applications of virtual reality.

What is changing?

Microsoft is releasing a new Xbox with an enhanced Kinect that promises a faster response rate and more precise body tracking—reading fingers, facial expressions, and even the user’s heart rate. Although the Nintendo Wii introduced a mainstream audience to gesture control, Microsoft’s Kinect removed the controllers entirely and ignited more innovations from researchers as far afield as medical diagnostics and telepresence, and the new Kinect will likely enable more innovations through its improvements. Since the Kinect debut, several companies have offered similar devices such as Leap Motion that will allow users to control their PCs or other devices without a mouse, remote, or other controller. These gesture control devices could simplify several tasks while immersing users in their activities.

Microsoft is also working on IllumiRoom using the Kinect and a projector to extend and augment the TV’s image across the whole wall around the user’s TV. The IllumiRoom would allow developers to enhance gaming or other viewing experiences impossible without these augmentations such as coloring a living room in cartoon colors or causing snowstorms in the lounge. Microsoft refers to these augmentations as illusions, and these illusions blur the lines between the reality of the user’s living room and the world the user is viewing on the TV.

Head mounted displays (HMD) have been around for several years for those who could afford them, but two new devices, Google Glass and the Oculus Rift, both promise to be more versatile, better quality, and more affordably priced. While also performing other functions, Google Glass (recently discussed in Sheila Moorcroft’s trend alert, Wearable technology – from geek to chic?) is an augmented reality device worn like a pair of glasses. It will overlay digital information on the world the user sees while recognizing objects—such as buildings and perhaps eventually faces—and offering the user further information about the objects. The Oculus Rift is a virtual reality headset that the company claims will be high quality and low price. It is gaining a great deal of attention from gaming companies and by gaming bloggers. Several popular games are officially supporting the device for a smoother user experience than similar devices that rely on support from third party developers. Both of the devices have resurrected popular interest in HMDs.

Second Life is also developing official support for the Oculus Rift which will add a completely new dimension to the 3D virtual world, and many bloggers are saying the device will be the killer app Second Life needs to inspire a resurgence of its popularity. However, Philip Rosedale, the creator of Second Life, is actually working on a completely new virtual world with much better graphics and integration of multiple immersive devices that may be a new way to explore the web. Exactly what Rosedale’s virtual world will be is unclear, but he has some impressive investors backing his initiative.

Why is this important?

Several immersive technologies are still on the horizon, but all the devices listed here are close to commercialization and could profoundly alter society’s digital interactions. Although these devices are primarily focused on gaming, the gaming industry has proven several times to lend its innovations to other sectors and industries (e.g. medical, supercomputing, employee engagement) especially due to the resulting cost cutting and widespread acceptance.

The most obvious applications are those that require some form of distance networking such as teleconferencing, distance learning, and telecommuting. With more realistic teleconferencing capabilities, businesses will affordably improve their client relations, sales, and employee management. More jobs will be easily adapted to telecommuting including data center management, and massively open online courses (MOOCs) will have more options for students. As the technology improves, citizen science and open innovation will drive several applications through inexpensive and readily available hardware.

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