A Paris cafe basement, 1896. The Lumière brothers screen their 50-second film, known as “Train Pulling into a Station”, to an audience said to have been taken aback at the sight of a train moving towards them as if it might jump off the screen. That was the beginning of movie magic. But what if the train could jump off the screen?
San Francisco, the Presidio, 2016. Vicki Dobbs Beck, who runs Lucasfilm’s ILMxLAB, and John Gaeta, who was responsible for the stunning slow-motion visual effects of “The Matrix”, are showing off the future of “mixed reality” in the cinema. The most exciting possibilities are still on the whiteboards of the mind. Imagine a horror film in which, at a crucial moment, a creature leaps from the screen into the audience. This is not yet possible, and even once it is, spectators will still have to wear special glasses to experience the effect.
The problem with the technology of alternative realities—virtual and augmented—is that their science-fiction versions have been too impressive. Popular culture has fostered fantasies of being able to move through, see, touch and interact with a manufactured world that seems real: a theme park populated with artificially intelligent physical beings in “Westworld”; the holodeck in “Star Trek”; a seductive consciousness with the sultry voice of Scarlett Johansson in “Her”.
In the physical world, alternative realities will one day allow humans to live out their hopes, dreams and fears from their living room. That is why billions of dollars are being invested in such technologies. But what is currently available is much clunkier, if plenty of fun. Virtual reality (VR) is still experienced in relative physical isolation. People can explore the depths of the ocean, as with Sony’s PlayStation VR. They can play virtual table tennis with someone not physically present, as with Oculus Rift’s “Toybox”. They can immerse themselves in a first-person shooter game on almost any VR platform. They can watch television dramas play out in their 360-degree world, with the cast moving behind and around them, as filmed by Jaunt Studios in California. They may even feel singed by the spray of molten lava as they duel Darth Vader with a light sabre.
But to do these things they have to put on a headset and disconnect from each other in the physical world. That limitation will inevitably slow the pace of adoption. Samsung, makers of a headset called Gear VR, designed for mass-market use, tried to deal with this head-on in a recent advertising campaign. It depicted a family taking turns trying on a Gear headset, with the grandfather telling the grandmother: “You’ve got to try this!”
Many in the alternative-realities business are more excited about augmented reality. With this technology, people put on glasses to look at images projected into the real world which they can still see around them. Microsoft has a version of this in HoloLens. Magic Leap, a secretive company in Florida that has raised more than $1bn from investors including Google, has dropped tantalising hints about the realities it can create. It is co-operating with Disney—via ILMxLAB—to create “Star Wars” experiences for fans, but that work is still strictly under wraps.
Keep it simple:
To be widely accepted, technologies will have to fit into people’s lives without much friction. Consumers latch onto things because they are affordable and easy to adopt, and because everyone else has got into them too. They do not have to be particularly high-tech. Google Glass was a high-end augmented-reality product but proved a bit too nerdy for the masses. Snap’s much cheaper Spectacles, which like Glass can record video from the wearer’s vantage point, will probably prove more popular with Snapchat’s young users. Pokémon Go, the mobile game that became an immediate hit last year, simply puts Pokémon characters in the field of vision of players’ smartphones. Any VR kit that sells well in the next year or two is likely to be a low-end version that pairs with a smartphone.
The problem with the technology of alternate realities—virtual and augmented—is that their science-fiction versions have been too impressive:
The more advanced alternative realities of the gaming world will come next. Your correspondent recently donned a “Synesthesia Suit”, developed in Japan, that stimulates the wearer with physical sensations, like little buzzes and vibrations as he plays a VR game. “Haptic technology” is another coming thing, though still more exciting in concept than in practice. The most obvious customers and evangelists for such advances in VR are serious gamers, partly because they are geeks and want to be in on the latest cool thing, and partly because they have an appetite for the pricey hardware—PCs and gaming consoles—needed for superior VR experiences. The most popular gaming format, first-person shooter games, lends itself naturally to VR; it is fun to be able to duck incoming fire, swivel and blast away at a baddie.
Most important, though, gamers in a way already inhabit alternative realities, playing in vividly imagined worlds with almost cinematic graphics. VR is a natural step towards making those games feel even more real. Getting there will not be altogether straightforward even for serious gamers: first-rate VR can give users motion sickness. And the cost is still offputting; the Sony PlayStation VR will set you back $399 for the headset and another few hundred dollars for a console. Your reward may be a terrific fright. “Resident Evil 7: Biohazard”, released for Sony PlayStation VR in January, is full of monsters coming at you—far scarier than a train jumping off the screen.