The Visualist Blog

Trend: Virtual Reality on the Rise

Been super busy and haven’t had much opportunity to blog in awhile but I am in a great mood today and want to share what’s on my mind. Virtual Reality is (finally) on the rise. When I was an undergrad at the University of Utah, I  was lucky enough to rub elbows with researchers in the areas of Computer Graphics, Computer Vision, and Visualization. Virtual Reality was a huge focus, showed great promise, and its impact on society seemed almost inevitable. It’s popularization culminated with a covershot on Scientific American in 1984 and the publication of the sci-fi classic Neuromancer in the same year. Unfortunately, the ability to deliver the promises of VR over the next few decades fell far short of expectation.

In fact, I’d claim that “Virtual Reality” at least in some circles has been saddled with the same sort of academic embarrassment as “Symbolic AI” was in the 1990s. Don’t get me wrong, my entire career has been focused on exploring the technological reasons for this disconnect and, in the commercial realm, addressing some of the corresponding  socio-economic challenges. We’ve begun to make progress and I’m seeing our displays used in some really exciting areas ranging from traditional CAVE-like systems to VR for market-research and product design.

So why am I in a good mood? It seems like some important barriers to the more widespread use of VR are starting to fall. VR began its renewal in 2008 when the U.S. National Academy of Engineering identified “Virtual Reality” as one of the Grand Challenges awaiting a solution since then, it has been the focus of some very bright people and (what has been different this time around) some very big companies. This renewed interest in VR isn’t limited to the U.S. and VR was identified as strategically important in both the Chinese government’s 2006 report “Development plan outline for Medium-and Long-Term Outline for Science and Technology Development (2006-2020)” as well as the 2007 Japanese government report “Innovation 2025”.

It is rare to find strategic interests becoming aligned at the research, government, and consumer level but this is exactly what has been happening with VR over the past three years. The result has been a number of significant advances that have opened-up the possibility of widespread VR.  Of course, I am baised towards the importance of high-fidelity display systems for VR, and their need to be low-cost, easy-to-use, and pervasive. So, I’m most excited by the advances in displays including the recent availability of multi-head graphics cards (up to six and soon to be more), the advancements in real-time raytracing, and the ability to move pixels faster over new wired interconnects (like DisplayPort 1.2) as well as wirelessly (Intel’s WiDi). The cost of rendering, delivering, and displaying a pixel is a tiny fraction of what it was in 1984.

Couple these advances with new imperatives from the gaming world including sophisticated full body tracking, massive multi-player worlds and distributed state management, etc.. and the beginnings of a high-fidelity immersive and collaborative shared world that truly supplants reality is within reach.

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