Virtual reality could be in for a rocky ride to adoption

LinkedIn has published the results of a study into business opinions on upcoming technology and adoption of virtual reality seems likely to be low.

The study concentrated on three emerging devices – VR headsets, wearables and self-driving cars – plus the development of artificial intelligence and there appeared to be resistance on all fronts.

LinkedIn asked its members worldwide a single question about each gadget, and the company’s marketing team found the results surprising.

Asked if they owned a VR headset, or intended to buy one in the next year, just 11 per cent said yes while 66 per cent said no. The remainder were uncertain.

The highest affirmative response was from the 25-34 age group at 16 per cent, with those aged 18-24 a little behind that at 13 per cent.

Residents of the United Arab Emirates bucked the trend at 33 per cent, followed by India at 25 per cent, with the UK placing last at just 5 per cent, just trumped by the US at 6 per cent.

Assessing why likely UK take-up was so low, Daniel Kent Smith, market research and insights manager at LinkedIn, said: “The UK has a fairly convincing track record as a land of early adopters, ahead of the curve on everything from smartphones to social media.

“However, a new study by LinkedIn suggests that professional audiences in the UK are noticeably less enthusiastic about the next generation of technology.

“In my theory, UK professionals are becoming more demanding when it comes to the credibility of new technology – and the value that it can add to their lives.

“After all, they’ve experienced a growing number of heavily hyped products that haven’t quite hit the mark: Google Glass and (dare I say it) the Apple Watch, to name two.

“Rather than a fear of technology, I think we’re seeing a growing (and to some degree, healthy) scepticism about the value that it can add.”

Asked if wearable tech was part of daily life, 64 per cent of respondents said no, against 35 per cent who felt it was.

Perhaps surprisingly, age at which highest adoption rates are seen is 45-54 age bracket at 40 per cent, with 18-24 year olds lagging way behind at 26%.

In other news, 48 per cent said no to buying a self-driving car and 28 per cent said they didn’t know. Again, the UK is lagging way behind at 13 per cent with the USA just three points higher.

Another potential surprise is that 58 per cent of those taking part in the survey were unconcerned about the rise of AI.

Unsurprisingly, the greatest level of resistance to new tech came from the 65+ age group with 22 per cent confirming use of wearables, 10 per cent likely to buy a self-driving car, and just two per cent using VR.

That said, they were far less concerned than their age 18-24 counterparts about the potential rise of the sentient robots – just 31 per cent compared with 41 per cent.

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Is virtual reality dangerous for kids?

If you bought your child a virtual reality headset for Christmas, you should realise you’re experimenting on them.

That’s according to Michael Madary, a postdoctoral research assistant at the University of Mainz in Germany, who last February co-authored the first code of ethics on the use of VR.

While there is no concrete evidence that time spent in VR will do youngsters physical or psychological harm, there’s currently no evidence to the contrary either.

“For obvious ethical reasons, it’s very difficult to do research using children as subjects,” Madary told Live Science.

“Children, at a young age, have difficulty distinguishing reality from fiction or fantasy,” Madary said. “You could imagine putting them in VR—that inability to distinguish could be exaggerated.”

His primary concern seemed to be that children could be manipulated while in a VR environment, either for advertising or political or religious ends.

“If you have a child spending a long time immersed in a VR environment where manipulation is going on, it could be seen as a threat to their autonomy and what kind of adult they become.

“I suspect that if parents are doing a good job as parents, that’s pretty much the most important factor,” he said. “It’s just exercising extreme caution and knowing that the experiments have not been done, so you’re experimenting on your kids.”

Several other experts have echoed Madary’s comments, urging caution in the amount of exposure older children have, while advising against younger children using them at all.

Manufacturers recommend ages between 12 and 13 as a starting point, though this appears to be based on nothing more solid than guesswork.

Marientina Gotsis, director of the Creative Media & Behavioral Health Center at the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts, told Live Science: “We do not have enough data on the safety of current VR technology for children.

“So, the sparsity of research data and what we know about neuroplasticity [the brain’s ability to reorganize itself] and children does not make me comfortable to recommend what is available now as is.

“The brain is very plastic in young ages, and prolonged exposure with improperly fitted devices could incur damage,” she said.

“Children also may not understand how to communicate eyestrain and may lack reflexes to remove the devices if they find them uncomfortable.”

“In virtual reality, basically the brain is only getting input from the eyes and we don’t know if that isolated input is really going to have an impact on the other senses and how we integrate and experience.”

A big concern is how our minds process ocular input, which could partly explain why some people experience nausea using VR.

When looking at distance, our eyes first point toward an object, then the lenses focus. This is called vergence-accommodation, and continually changes as we look at objects closer and further away.

In VR, depth is an illusion and there’s a concern that the eyes remaining focussed on a fixed point could cause problems.

“Some scientists believe this is the reason some people experience symptoms when viewing 3D stimuli—TV and cinema, as well as headsets,” Peter Howarth, an optometrist and senior lecturer in visual ergonomics at Loughborough University in the United Kingdom, told Live Science.

“Virtual reality is still a very new technology, still evolving and we really don’t yet know what the impact may be on children,”

And some have gone even further, suggesting that without other sensory input, it is difficult to predict how our minds will process the optical input.

Dr. Rudrani Banik, a neuro-ophthalmologist with New York Eye and Ear Infirmary of Mount Sinai, told ABC News: “In virtual reality, basically the brain is only getting input from the eyes and we don’t know if that isolated input is really going to have an impact on the other senses and how we integrate and experience,” she said.

“I would say moderation is most important when allowing our children to use these devices,” she said.

How can we make our virtual worlds more physical

There are two main challenges for tech developers seeking to drag immersive virtual reality environments out of the realms of science fiction.

The first is the ability for users to interact with the environment – to walk, run, jump and crouch, pick up, drop and throw objects, and handle them as though they had physical properties.

On the flipside, a user’s ability to feel feedback is almost as important if they are to believe they inhabit the worlds they are engaged with.

There have been huge strides in the development of core VR technologies in recent years, and now the race is on to create supplementary gear to enhance the experience.

Controllers are becoming more sophisticated, indeed Valve’s new prototype for Steam VR lets users pick up and throw objects, as well as manipulate them.

The main problem for developers trying to mimic locomotion within VR is space. Room scales the current aspirational standard, and the ideal would clearly be to allow complete freedom of movement, but this is far from practical.

Aside from the safety aspects, it would be practically impossible to make the real world simulate what users see through their headsets, most of which are currently designed with standing still or sitting in mind.

Roto VR has developed a motorised chair which it believes could tackle the problem. It allows users to walk, run and jump using touch pedals, tracks head movement and rotates the chair to match, and can accommodate a range of peripherals such as racing pedals, and a table for steering wheels or flight sticks.

This appears to solve a range of issues, including rooting physical movement to the spot. Virtuix has come up with an alternative solution, the Omni, a rig and harness allowing users to walk or run, forwards or backwards, and even strafe. It also decouples body and head, allowing viewing and movement in separate directions.

But the two options are rather costly which, for a diversion already potentially requiring heavy outlay, is far from ideal. Both pieces of kit are also rather bulky for most normal domestic settings.

Some indie developers are working on much lower-tech solutions to the problem. Ryan Sullivan (YouTube handle deprecatedcoder) has been working on a static version using HTC Vive controllers held at waist height coupled with running on the spot to move. Others are working on methods to solve the issue of not having a free hand for interaction.

Even if developers crack the issue of movement and interaction, VR is likely to continue feeling somewhat sterile unless users are able to gain some level of sensory feedback.

Microsoft Research is working on two devices called NormalTouch and TextureTouch which could offer the ability to feel shapes and the basic texture of objects. Current technology clearly lacks finesse and would need a great deal of work to become at all ergonomic.

An elegant solution to the problem of physical resistance has yet to be found. Several ideas have been put forward for VR gloves, allowing control and feedback, including the Dexta Robotics Dexmo exoskeleton glove.

The company’s demo video explains that the glove “physically pulls back your fingers to fit the shape of the virtual objects, and it dynamically changes the force applied to simulate their stiffness”.

This, it continues, means “you can not only feel the physical presence of the object, but also tell the difference between a virtual stone and a virtual rubber duck by just squeezing them”.

But how about the rest of the body? Perhaps the Synesthesia Suit or Teslasuit have the answer. Synesthesia uses full-body haptics which rely on vibration to simulate sensations and contact with objects. Teslasuit approaches the problem in a similar way using electro-muscular stimulation.

All of these solutions have one thing in common, they affect or are affected by the body. Perhaps there’s another way. Scientists from Italy and Japan recently collaborated on a study which allowed paralysed subjects to control a robot using an EEG cap which read electrical activity in their brains.

The subjects at the University of Rome could direct the robot in a lab almost 9,000 kilometres away in Tsukuba to pick up a drink, move across a room and put the drink on a table.

With this kind of cerebral manipulation under development, who knows what might be possible in the future of virtual reality?

How can VR filmmakers keep focus on the narrative?

One of the biggest problems facing developers of material for virtual reality is how to keep users focused on the narrative.

Unlike more traditional media, where camera angle anchors the attention on a specific spot, VR viewers are free to survey the entire 360-degree environment.

And this presents a challenge for anyone working to create immersive experiences which provide users with a level of agency they’re just not used to, particularly in TV and film.

Game designers have dealt with this issue for years, creating entire settings which people can occupy and interact with. This gives them a head start in crafting products for a VR audience.

But many filmmakers are beginning to turn their attention toward virtual reality as a potential vehicle for cinema and television.

Bourne Identity director, Doug Liman, has just launched a five-episode miniseries called Invisible for which he’s apparently disregarded a great deal of accepted wisdom for working in VR.

The result is very disorienting. The jury is still out on whether devices which have been acceptable in more traditional media , like jump cuts and split screens, work in a VR setting.

Liman told The Verge: “There’s no reason my films can’t work as hard as VR does to hook an audience and never let them go.

“The thing that became most clear to me when we first shot the tests was that we had to rethink the way we were telling stories, because when you just take a traditional scripted scene out of any TV script or movie script and shoot it in VR, it’s going to be less compelling than what was shot in 2D.”

One of the big problems for filmmakers is that, unlike games which players can take many hours or even days to complete, they need to tell their stories within a matter of minutes.

Just think how many individual shots go into a single episode of your favourite programme. All the while, the audience’s attention is focussed directly on the action.

Now imagine giving viewers the opportunity to look around while a scene evolves. What happens when, as they’re turning to look behind them, the shot changes and they completely lose a sense of where they are?

Co-founder at software firm The Foundry, Simon Robinson, told TechRadar that filmmakers “can no longer pan from the left and right to the end of an image because there is no end of the image, they are having to think about sitting in a bubble instead”.

“People like the idea that when you put your headset on you feel as immersed as possible,” he added. “And any flaws in the material break that sense of immersion.”

So how to keep an audience focussed on the action? Perhaps sound is the key.

In a short promotional film for his VR animation Mad God, stop-motion legend, Phil Tippett, said: “It just meant changing how one approached the narrative because it took away all your editorial tools for telling a story but it gave you something else that was really pretty cool, which was being able to direct by the location of sound in the three-dimensional sphere.”

Meghan Neal at Motherboard recently posted a piece which seemed to agree. She wrote: “3D sound mimics the way we hear in real life, and is a crucial part of what makes a virtual environment realistic.

“Most recordings we listen to today are in stereo, panning between the left and right ear.

“But adding the aural dimension of depth is how the brain locates things in space, so you can hear sounds that appear to be coming from off in the distance, right up close, behind you, and in every direction in a 360-degree sphere.”

Google’s VR filmmaker, Jessica Brillhart, has started trying to visualise how filmmakers can make the leap from two dimensions to a 3D environment.

“Game designers understand that they’re creating an experiential hub for potential stories and not a direct one-to-one story,” she told an audience at last month’s EmTech MIT 2016 conference.

“They come up with a general idea and provide players with the means to discover the story on their own.

“VR filmmakers can learn from them, and from architects, who similarly build spaces that have conversations with people,” she says.

But some don’t envisage this happening quickly. Will McMaster, head of VR at Visualise, told TechRadar: “VR and 360 film content is not something you can just pour money into and it will magically be good.

“It’s going to take many years, maybe even decades, for content producers in VR to figure out the mechanics of how a story is told this way.”

How can we create immersion within fantasy settings?

All breakthrough technologies need to find their niche. If an innovation offers nothing new, it’s unlikely to succeed.

With virtual reality, immersion is key, and it’s something I find myself returning to whenever I consider where we’re heading.

During a recent Skyrim session, I found myself wondering how fantasy games would fare as virtual worlds. It strikes me that standard treatments of the genre on more conventional platforms wouldn’t work well if directly ported across.

Of course, graphics have come a long way. The latest generation of consoles and gaming PCs are capable of producing characters believable enough to fool many of us, at least at a glance. But there are still a number of issues which would detract from the experience.

For one, in-view text windows might well destroy immersion. Having had years of it on our screens, perhaps it’s something we’ll tolerate, but I think that once we’re inside these three-dimensional spaces, elements like this will become less acceptable.

dialogue

Can in-game text ruin a virtual environment?

Picture it: You’re sitting in your living room, hacking apart on-screen trolls on your Xbox One, then someone opens the door and you glance over to see who it is. Immediately you’re out of the game.

Now imagine the same encounter, standing in a rig and VR headset, holding a weighted controller in-hand. Same environment, same trolls, but now you’re within the world. Someone opens the door and, when you glance to your left, all you can see is the digital landscape around you.

While the opening door might serve as a distraction, you’re still immersed in the game world. You look back and take a final swipe at the slavering creature, dropping it to the ground, where a text box pops up offering you the option to search its corpse.

In a modern or futuristic setting, it’s possible to deal with this by using some kind of narrative device like augmented reality goggles or a heads-up display. Your VR headset would even provide the feeling of actually wearing them. But in a fantasy setting, there’s no ideal work-around.

HUD.png

HUDs will be fine in modern or futuristic environments settings, but what about fantasy?

And no matter the environment, is there a viable alternative for selecting conversation strands from an on-screen list? When dealing with other players, dialogue should be relatively straightforward, but what about non-player characters?

We have voice recognition, and that will address part of the issue, but just how flexible can we make our content, and how much open-endedness will artificial intelligence allow? If we really want a true sandbox environment, these are issues begging for consideration.

Then there are the surroundings themselves. On-screen, we’ll happily pop open an inventory and equip new items. Kill a creature, plunder its body and you can pick and choose from a list of loot. But in VR, wouldn’t it be much more satisfying to actually unsling a backpack and inspect its contents?

For every solution, a new problem will doubtless present itself, but if we wish to strive for a truly captivating experience we need to start thinking in more than three dimensions.

How will our future virtual worlds look?

How will our virtual worlds look? There’s no shortage of options, many of them detailed in the pages of science fiction novels for the past few decades.

Will we have a single sprawling universe, perhaps something like Second Life in which we control increasingly lifelike avatars around digital spaces similar to the real world?

In his novel, Ready Player One, Ernest Cline envisages a series of zones, each populated with planets featuring a variety of landscapes from cities and rolling fields to barren vector-graphic representations.

Neal Stephenson’s Metaverse in the book Snow Crash (as if anyone here hasn’t read it) has the entire virtual space constructed along the 65,536km-length of a hundred-metre-wide road.

Given that the most immediate adoption of the technology will be among gamers, it’s likely that a large number of disparate territories will exist before anything interconnected emerges.

This could leave us with a patchwork of constructs with little in common, from polygonal vistas to richly rendered science fiction and fantasy realms.

But how will our presence in these spaces be managed, will we look the same regardless of where we spawn? And by what means will we travel between them, through mundane methods like walking and driving, or teleportation at the touch of a button?

Industry’s capacity for monetising any new tech will probably lead to the concept of virtual real estate, much like ownership of online domains as it currently exists. And as these will appear as physical spaces, anyone with the ability to code will likely make a killing in architectural and interior design.

In an awesome (and I mean that in the literal sense) presentation earlier this month, Oculus and Facebook revealed their vision. Mark Zuckerberg’s Rift visit to a virtual hangout with Michael Booth and Lucy Bradshaw, of FB’s social VR team, was a fine example of what might be achieved.

In the absence of neural connection with a virtual space, social presence is perhaps the most important element in making the experience fully immersive. Our capacity for interacting with others, whether real people or digital constructs, depends greatly on our ability to read non-verbal cues, so how our avatars operate is vitally important.

I honestly think this – alongside credible environments, sense of agency, and physical feedback (haptic or otherwise) – will ultimately determine how successful our virtual experiences are.

Want Playstation VR reviews? Here are six of the best.

Trying to decide whether to pick up a PSVR?

It looks likely to be the first device to bring virtual reality to the mass market, comfortably occupying the ground between smartphone headsets and high-end rigs like Oculus Rift and HTC Vive.

There’s plenty of chatter on the webs about this new addition to the virtual landscape, and you might be finding it difficult to sort the wheat from the chaff.

Well, I might be able to help you with that. From the reviews I’ve read, excited is not the word. Here are six of the best and a little information about what you can expect from each.

Daily Mirror – a light-touch review for the layman.

Engadget – a more in-depth, beautifully illustrated review on form and function. Check out the Batman: Arkham VR and Until Dawn: Rush of Blood videos.

Gizmodo – much more of a user’s perspective.

Tech Crunch – gets a little more into the tech specs and pushes the headset’s capabilities a little further than other reviews.

Independent – a reasonable all-rounder.

Guardian – for those of you who, like me, hope for the best and so keep an eye open for the most positive reviews, this is the one you want.