The New Face of Virtual Reality

The expansion of consciousness. To be transported to another dimension, another world.

The Metaverse, the Matrix, Cyberspace: all worlds of fantasy, wonder and endless freedoms where our bodies mean nothing and only our imagination defines the limits.

Such was the aim of virtual reality.  What happened?

In the light of technically impossible expectations and misleading hype from B-rated sci-fi flicks, the classic vision of virtual reality from the late 80’s and early 90’s is dead.   And it’s a good thing, too.

Now, augmented reality is the new buzz. Augmented reality (or AR) integrates a virtual world into a real world environment, allowing for interactions and ideas not possible to create in the real world.

Sound familiar?

That’s because it’s the same thing. Much like Web 2.0 was essentially shift in thinking from static to dynamic, individual to social, centralized to decentralized; AR is a shift in thinking around what virtual reality is, from both a technical and practical perspective.

The failed marketing and technology of Nintendo’s Virtual Boy was perhaps the only attempt (though indisputably premature) to deploy Virtual Reality technology to the mass market. Unbelievably, the hardware actually had a built-in mechanism to automatically pause the experience every 15-30 minutes to give the user a rest.

In light of the Virtual Boy’s failure, two powerful lessons became quickly evident:

  1. No one wants red headache-inducing diodes
  2. Like Marxism, VR is much prettier on paper.  (It’s no surprise that futuristic utopias/dystopias based around VR systems continue to be a hot topic for sci-fi lit).

While the old-school headsets traditionally associated with VR still have a place in the technology (where the virtual world must be invasive), mass-market feasibility is moving away from attempting to virtually dominate a user’s senses to seamlessly integrating the virtual world into the real world. No sensory substitution required.

Although I’m as curious as the next guy about where technology capable of reproducing smells is taking us, most hardware and software developers have stopped expecting to utilize it in their systems. Instead, they utilize cheap, readily available hardware, such as the iPhone, Android, and other smart phones to make it easy to integrate a virtual space into real space for everyday use.

In his book, The Metaphysics of Virtual Reality, Michael Heim outlines the seven building blocks of virtual reality: simulation, artificiality, immersion, interaction, full-body immersion, telepresence, and network communication.  In the AR world, these building blocks maintain the same fundamental spirit, but, much like Web 2.0, manifest themselves in a different manner.


In VR, a virtual model is created with intelligence and intuitive response to existing physical laws. Because AR is even more bound to the constraints of the physical world, the simulation becomes more synergistic and less intrusive. It looks to augment rather than replace.

Artificiality and Immersion

At the core of AR, an artificial world or parts of it are used to augment the physical world and attain seamlessness. In this aim for seamlessness lies the nature of immersion: a blurring of the boundaries of the real world and the boundaries of the virtual world.

Interaction and Full-Body Immersion

It’s almost impossible to conceive of a piece of software in today’s landscape that does not have interaction at its core. In this regard, AR maintains the same spirit and aims for ultimately the same level of full-body immersion as VR.  Though current AR executions are yet to tout full-body motion detection our fingers are crossed for Microsoft’s Project Natal.

Telepresence and Network Communication

Much in the same way as high levels of interactivity are a must in most modern applications (especially those dealing with virtual worlds), teleprescence, or the ability to affect something remotely, and the required network communication, is equally taken for granted.

VR is usually equated with head-mounted displays, but the spirit of the technology does not specify interface.  Instead of using an interface that leaves no room for the non-virtual, augmented reality simply frames the interface within real space. It’s the same idea, with a slight twist. Instead of a computer-generated artificial world, we’re creating a digitally integrated world of ubiquitous computing.

It’s evolution, baby.

So what does the future hold for AR?

We have a panel up for vote for SXSW 2010 where the AR topic will be covered in further detail. Vote for our panel to learn more!