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Techperts Predict Virtual Reality in Near Future

Tech experts say virtual reality has become a very real proposition as it clears R&D hurdles and opens breakthroughs in science, learning and human interaction.

When we talk of the future, it’s nearly inevitable and often implied that technology will have something to do with it. Furthering this hi-tech future talk, on Wednesday, We the Geeks -- a White House Google Hangout and video blog -- called upon tech industry experts to highlight their own insider opinions on technology’s future impacts on daily life. Though topics ranged, the discussion spotlighted virtual environments and virtual reality as two of the next big milestones in education, entertainment and scientific exploration. 

On hand for speculation were Mark Papermaster, CTO at Advanced Micro Devices (AMD); Alex Kipman, general manager of new devices at Microsoft; Alicia Gibb, executive director of the Open Source Hardware Association; and Palmer Luckey, the founder of the virtual reality headset prototype, Oculus Rift.

Luckey, who founded his company Oculus VR through Kickstarter, said he’s sold more than 50,000 virtual reality headset prototypes to developers worldwide and described virtual reality as a coming of age tool in the coming years. Various uses, he pointed out, went beyond mere gaming, some of these including virtual tourism, architectural walk throughs, scientific research and virtual training exercises in hands-on career fields.

Luckey said the Rift is currently being used by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Jet Propulsion Labs (JPL) for virtual planetary space exploration of Mars. In the past, Luckey said scientists could only observe through video and panoramic photographs. Now he said JPL scientists are combining recovered imagery from Mars to create a virtual environment.

“Scientists can see relationships of different objects on the planet in scale and their relationship with each other,” Luckey said.

For virtual reality experiences closer to home, Luckey said uses could include virtual field trips for educational purposes such as cross-continental trips to the Pyramids of Egypt or the ruins of the Roman Colloseum. These simulated locales, he added, could be combined with trips that transported users not just through space, but also time. Students and users could take advantage of an adjustable timeline that would bring them back to ancient civilizations and yesteryear places

“What if you could not spend all of those resources, if you could send not just college students but any person of any age to go see the ruins as they exist today, and as they existed at the height of the Roman Empire?” Luckey said.

Though Oculus VR has yet to give the hardware a consumer release date, the developer kit, which includes the headset and software for the device, is currently sold to developers for a relatively consumer-friendly price of $300 ($100 cheaper than Sony’s Playstation 4 and $200 cheaper than the Microsoft’s Xbox 1).

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Moving beyond the headset, Papermaster said AMD is currently working on what StarTrek fans may know as a Halodeck, a room that offers a complete virtual reality experience where a person can enter, without any equipment, and be handed a uniquely virtual experience. Though the completion of the grand undertaking is likely 10-15 years away, Papermaster confirmed it is going forward in a deliberate way; the project is no longer a what-if scenario, but a matter of when.

Currently Papermaster said AMD is collaborating with multiple tech experts and companies in areas of motion detection, computing software, and hi-definition audio and video, among others, and has created a 360-degree surround house as a developing prototype.

A Connected World

Giving a nod to research firm Gartner, Papermaster spotlighted its estimate that by 2020 there will be 30 billion devices connected to the internet. The report, released October 2013, also predicts a $1.9 trillion economy from the new “Internet-of-Things” industry, one that will connect all types of products and devices to the internet from clothing, to appliances, vehicles, to just about anything.

“We really are starting to see this completely seamless interface between humans and computing,” Papermaster said.

Both he and Kipman imagined the advent of connected devices allowing for large gains in the way of health care, especially in cases where medicine can be prescribed by using smart sensors that can upload digital body metrics online.

“Think of the impact it has for health care with Doctors Without Borders [a humanitarian aid organization offering medical services to undeveloped countries], where all of a sudden you can be a doctor in a developed world and you can transport yourself to somewhere you wouldn’t normally have access to where you could save lives,” Kipman said.

In the way of teaching, Kipman said he anticipated that virtual environments, online platforms used for communication, would continue increase new opportunities in classrooms, such as the growth of Massive Open Online Classrooms (MOOCs), that provide premium curriculums at minimal or no cost.

Despite high optimism, the panel grounded its hi-tech enthusiasm with the real world, its various politics and its sometime prohibitive norms. Gibb said she thought the question of technology’s progress didn’t lie only in the hands of technologists, such as themselves, but may be determined by the acceptance it's given as a whole.

“I really think the synthesis of how all of this works out is whether or not society accepts doing all of this stuff,” she said. “What’s going to be the really interesting part, for me, is not whether we can build this technology — because I already know we can — but whether society is going to choose … to accept or not accept it on a larger scale.”

Jason Shueh is a former staff writer for Government Technology magazine.