August 14, 2015

VR goggles: coming to a store near you. Credit: Nan Palmero / Flickr Creative Commons

There was a time, around 20 years ago, when virtual reality was going to be the Next Big Thing. News anchors put on dorky goggles, VR machines popped up in arcades across the country, and the technology seemed brimming with possibility. It even appeared in an episode of the seminal 90s television series, “Murder, She Wrote.” (If you’re wondering, yes, Angela Lansbury calls VR “very fresh.”)

It was going to transform the world.

That… didn’t exactly happen.

Now, virtual reality is making a comeback. Facebook bought Oculus Rift for $2 billion, the technology is gracing the cover of Time, and once again, news anchors are putting on VR goggles, (though this time, the goggles are significantly cooler).

Philip Rosedale, founder of High Fidelity and Second Life, thinks the turnaround is happening because technology is finally catching up with its creators' dreams.

“The equipment you would use to immerse yourself… was tens of thousands of dollars," Rosedale explains of the last wave of VR tech. "Today, we’re at a point where it is affordable. We’re absolutely at the point where equipment like that is going to be something that everybody is going to be able to buy as easily as they buy a smartphone.”

Though Rosedale acknowledges the possibility of running into some more road bumps in the coming years, he still believes that VR can radically transform the world. And he doesn’t see virtual reality's potential limited to video games (which, to be fair, can be awesome).

Many of us are aware, for example, of the modern-day pitfalls of video-conferencing: You can’t see hand gestures, facial expressions are tricky, and there’s always a lag. Rosedale envisions possibilities beyond just chatting with the grandkids:

“What if we can make face-to-face [VR] work as well as standing next to someone? What if when I look at you as an avatar in the virtual world, I can see your eyes moving, and I can see the muscles around your mouth moving, and I can see your hands gesturing.”

By reducing the lag between participants, better capturing facial expressions, and putting everyone in the same virtual space, Rosedale thinks VR could end the grind of business travel for a whole lot of people.

He's also enthusiastic about VR’s educational possibilities.

“Imagine being a high school student and at a set time… logging in with a group of other high school students across the country or world, and when you log in you find yourself inside the middle of an actual living cell, kind of like Fantastic Voyage. You can see mitochondria floating by you, and proteins being made by ribosomes… imagine being able to study cell biology in an environment like that.”

But perhaps the possibility that excites Rosedale most is virtual reality’s potential to create communities.

He’d know something about creating virtual communities. As the founder of Second Life, he established an online world where people can build structures, dance, shop, and just generally hang out with other people. It even had its own economy, with, at one time, a GDP of $64 million, and some people earning a full-time living in Second Life.

With the increased immersion of VR, Rosedale sees virtual societies becoming an increasing part of our daily lives:

“I’d like to see, ten or fifteen years from now, a situation where everybody that uses the Internet today, billions of people, spend at least a good chunk of their time logged into an enormous set of connected virtual worlds, where they can learn and play and be creative and meet new people.”

So, if in a few years you’re putting on VR goggles and spending a chunk of your day in a virtual world, you’ll know that the current virtual reality hype was justified.

technology, ihub, Sci and Tech, innovation hub, virtual reality, philip rosedale, Kara Miller

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