To many people, virtual reality technology remains more of a novelty than necessity. For example, viewers used it to witness the launch of the 2020 Ford Mustang at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit earlier this month.
If you’ve seen a set of virtual reality goggles — in person or otherwise — you may have jumped to a few conclusions. Maybe a useful gadget for hardcore gamers, but not for me. Who wants to stand around swiveling his head and looking like an apprentice welder from the Planet Cybertron?
And how much more antisocial could people possibly get?
But over the Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekend, virtual reality drew nearly 450 people from about 35 countries to the campus of MIT for an event called Reality Virtually.
The participants formed small teams and spent four days building, from scratch, fully functional pieces of software for virtual reality and augmented reality headsets. (Augmented reality, a sibling of virtual reality, uses glasses that you can see through but that can overlay digital imagery onto the real world.)
The event offered an incredible glimpse into the nascent medium’s possibilities. It’s a medium, Northeastern University professor David Tamés observes, for which “the hardware development is way ahead of where the storytelling and the applications and the content are. People are pouring huge amounts of money into the hardware, and nobody is really making the big investments in the software.”
(Tamés was among the participants at the Reality Virtually event.)
In other words, this is like television before Ed Sullivan or “I Love Lucy.” And the hardware makers know they need to do a better job of persuading people why they might need this gear; at Reality Virtually, they were offering cash prizes of up to $3,000 to teams that came up with the best software demos.
Several teams were thinking about the way these headsets might help those with visual impairment. The team called Bright adapted a headset made by Microsoft — you can see digital information displayed on a clear visor, and it can talk to you — to let the wearer “zoom in” on the real world. That might be useful for reading small text on a sign, for example, or recognizing a person from far away.
Peter Lu, a student from Sheridan College near Toronto, explained that his team had turned a Magic Leap headset into a “virtual cane.”
Instead of using a cane to gather information about the environment, a person with visual impairment could grasp a small controller in one hand and use it to detect objects they might trip on or bump into.
Tiny cameras embedded in the headset could spot obstacles and send vibrations of differing intensities to the controller, indicating whether an obstacle was nearby or farther away.
The team also created a “memo feature,” Lu explained, “so you can record your voice in a certain place, and then whenever you pass by, it plays back what you said. For example, ‘There’s a key I left on the shelf here.’ ”
Something called Move 2 Improve envisioned integrating virtual reality gear into a physical therapy regime: Put on a headset, pick up a controller, and play a game of “connect the dots,” moving your arm to create pictures in the sky within the virtual environment.