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22 April 2017

Immersive Technology

Tag(s): Technology, Business
   In my capacity as Chairman of the Digital Engineering & Test Centre I attended the Virtual Reality Show this week. We had a stand demonstrating how Virtual Reality and related technologies might transform design and manufacturing in the automotive industry and so help achieve our aim of halving the time to market while doubling the value.

Virtual Reality has had something of a chequered history. One of the earliest known examples of immersive, multi-sensory technology was the Sensorama developed and patented by Morton Heilig. He saw theatre as an activity that could accompany all the senses in an effective manner. In 1962 he built a prototype of his vision. Of course, this was nothing like the headsets of today; rather it was like a kiosk in which you placed your head. It could display stereoscopic 3D images in a wide angle view, provide body-tilting, supply stereo sound, and also had tracks for wind and aromas to be triggered during the film. But Heilig was unable to obtain financial backing for his plans and so the Sensorama work was halted.

In the 1990s at a technology exhibition organised by Dixons, Sony’s largest customer in the UK, I was invited to try out a Virtual Reality headset as a form of video game. I found it intensely disorienting. Not much later Sony started experimenting in this field with the idea that headsets with VR experience might replace small TV screens in the backs of aeroplane seats. I asked them how much medical testing had been done as it seemed to me that the human eye had evolved over hundreds of thousands of years to its marvellous ability to both hunt game and thread a needle but that forcing it to make sense of complex imagery at almost no distance for two hours or so was a step too far. No reply did there come.

But this show demonstrated to me just how far it has come in a wide variety of industries and applications.

The United Nations and UNICEF now use VR to show how it really is in refugee camps. The Za'atari Refugee Camp in Jordan is home to over 80,000 Syrians fleeing war and violence. Half of these are children. Clouds over Sidra is the story of a 12 year old girl who has lived there since the summer of 2013. The film follows her to school, to her makeshift tent and even to the football pitch. It’s the first ever film shot in virtual reality for the UN, using the medium to generate greater empathy and new perspectives on people living in conditions of great vulnerability. It was launched at the World Economic Forum in Davos in January 2015.[i]

NASA now uses VR in their laboratories in Florida. From 2D images of the landscape on Mars sent back from the rover Curiosity they first built 360° imagery but with lots of distortion. They have developed Onsite VR technology that enables scientists to study the surface of Mars from their offices here on earth, and indeed anywhere on earth.  In the International Space Station astronauts are expected to be able to do everything including carrying out running repairs.  That puts a very great strain on the cost and time of the training programme. Now with HoloLens mixed reality the methods can be demonstrated from earth with huge savings in time. And with their Project Floorspace they can solve problems in spacecraft design before they’re real. A NASA scientist demonstrated to me a 3D projection of the design of a rover planned for a mission to Mars in 2020. I did not need to wear a headset or special glasses and could see this 3D image as he moved it around, altered its size and even separated a component that he could then walk around to inspect.

There are already many applications of VR in the health sector using it in surgery, rehabilitation and many others. But one particularly struck me, perhaps because my father suffered from Alzheimer’s disease. Alzheimer’s Research UK is the fastest growing medical research charity in the UK, and it needs to be because as people live longer more of them suffer from Alzheimer’s. There are 850,000 sufferers from dementia in the UK today.

According to a YouGov poll Alzheimer’s is the number one health fear along with cancer. 31% of people most fear these two diseases; blindness is next with 8%. But only 23% of people recognise it as a disease of the brain. Most characterise it more vaguely as ‘getting old,’ ‘losing your marbles’ or ‘the mind is deteriorating’ Some just call it ‘senior moments’ and this becomes a chance for humour. There is nothing funny about dementia. It is not forgetting where your keys are but forgetting what they’re for.

To overcome this ARUK has created a dementia VR experience based on the idea of making a cup of tea. A Walk Though Dementia is a unique Android-exclusive Google Cardboard app designed to put you in the shoes of someone living with dementia. First you must buy the tea but to the dementia sufferer the supermarket is a terrifying place with distracting noises and excessively bright lights; the packaging all seems the same and when you select one the letters jump around; checking out is problematic as you have trouble sorting out your change and you have feelings of anxiety and isolation. Then you have to get home but you have problems with the textures of the pavement; a puddle appears like a chasm; you can’t judge speed or distance; your carer comes to meet you but you have difficulty with facial recognition; you feel panic and disorientation. Once home you want to show your independence and make the tea; but the objects in your peripheral vision are moving about; you can’t find what you want in the kitchen.[ii]

Microsoft has developed the HoloLens using Mixed Reality. While Virtual Reality headsets cover your eyes so you lose touch with what’s around you with HoloLens you can see both the virtual image and the real surroundings. HoloLens is coming to market for ordinary consumers to become developers. Microsoft says it will allow you to convert dreams into reality, the point being that there is room for interpretation and error. It will be the first fully self-contained head-mounted holographic computer, i.e. wearable Windows 10. It has advanced sensors, transparent lenses, a holographic pressing unit and special sound.

To date its applications include:

·         Creation and design; Volvo has reduced time to market by one year.  
·         Assembly and manufacturing; e.g. the operator can work hands free 
·         Training & development; Japan Airlines has incorporated it into their training programmes allowing remote operation
·         Communication and understanding
·         Entertainment and engagement

Jaguar Land Rover is bringing to market its first electric car – the Jaguar I-Pace. It wanted to launch this in a suitably up-to-date way. When there is only one concept car and it’s several months before the cars will be delivered it’s difficult to show it. Imagination used VR technology to do this, launching the car to 66 trade journalists simultaneously in London and Las Vegas. The journalists could all sit in the front seat at the same time in both time zones. One called it ‘the showroom of the future’. As more and more future purchasers do their research online there has been a drop in footfall at car showrooms. Maybe this will bring them back.

Immersive Technology including Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality and Mixed Reality is clearly developing fast. The products are here or coming soon. But it is not the answer to everything. Jeffrey O’Brien, a contributor to Fortune magazine, says “most things don’t work in VR. If you show me 20 ideas, I’ll say 19 of them would work better in another medium.”[iii]

But Immersive Technology is being developed in a range of uses from active to passive, from utility to entertainment. I think its most powerful application, and therefore perhaps its most valuable will be in the creation of tools that allow the user to become superhuman. But I am also inspired by the emotional force it can generate in telling stories by putting you right in the picture whether it’s in a refugee camp, as a sufferer from dementia or even walking with penguins.

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