I watched many sci-fi movies and TV shows as a child. One TV show that made a strong impression is Star Trek, which is about a spaceship from Earth traveling through the galaxy, encountering alien civilizations. The show presents two technologies that I found fascinating. One was teleportation, a form of travel where people are able to leave from one place and instantaneously reappear at another location. The other impressive bit of technology was virtual, immersive reality, seen in many episodes where crew members of the spaceship enter ‘imaginary’ pubs and restaurants. They are even able to enter the universe of a novel that they like, meet and interact with characters from the novel, or even play a character in this fictional world. This pastime is valuable for the crew, as it helps them cope with the monotony of the spaceship.
Back then, I remember thinking that both the technologies are probably impossible. Fortunately, I was only half right. We are no closer to mastering teleportation, but Virtual Reality is something we can already get our hands on. There is a lot of excitement around Immersive Tech as these technologies can be useful in a wide variety of domains, from education and training to fitness and athletics, from industrial design to interior design, from travel and tourism to medicine and healthcare. Let’s take a quick overview of what Immersive Tech is all about.
Immersive Tech: This is a general purpose term used to refer to any technology that blurs the boundary between the physical world around you, and the digital, software-created world that you interact with.
Augmented Reality: As you look at the real world around you, the AR technology looks with you, and enhances your interaction by offering intelligent, context-sensitive information. For example, if you are just taking the picture of a sunset from your mobile phone, there is no Immersive Tech involved there. But what if, as you take the picture, the phone scans the surroundings, and tells you about what trees and flowers are in the picture?
Augmented Reality often uses special glasses that you can wear. These allow you to see normally, but they have a little computer and a projection system inside them so that, based on what you are seeing, the AR glasses can superimpose additional information related to what you are looking at. AR can work without glasses too. For example, instead of going to a museum and leafing through a booklet, as you walk around, you could simply turn on your mobile phone camera and the phone-if it has appropriate AR software installed-recognizes where you are and superimposes relevant information onto the screen. Google Glass, now discontinued, was an AR device. Currently, the most exciting AR device is Hololens by Microsoft.
Virtual Reality: While AR refers to ‘augmenting’ the reality of our physical world, VR refers to creating a digital reality that can-temporarily-completely replace our physical reality. To experience VR you need to put on a specially designed device called HMD over your eyes, and this device completely blocks your view of the world around you. Instead, you see a digital world, which could be anything-a farm, an alien spaceship, or a theme park. VR is really a combination or two things: A powerful computer that can run VR software, and an HMD (a device rather like thick glasses) that connects with this computer to create-using clever but simple optics-a 360-degree, immersive view. Renowned companies such as Facebook, Google, HTC, Sony, and many others now offer VR devices, and corresponding software to purchase and download new VR apps.
The clever part with VR is that these systems have sensors that register your physical movement and react accordingly. So if I were to look up while wearing a VR device, inside my simulated reality too my avatar would look up and maybe see the sky. This goes for walking as well as hand movements, which is how the immersive, 360-degree world becomes a ‘reality’ for us.
*This article was originally published on January 16, 2017 in Telangana Today, and can be accessed at Time for immersive technologies.