Handheld Technology

London Tech Week: An ancient Egyptian Oculus Rift & the future of VR

Last night I was at an event hosted by Nesta, discussing the future of virtual reality. Before the event started there was time to try the Samsung Gear headset so, with a crowd of people around me, I plonked one on my head and suddenly I was in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. In one sense it was cool as I really felt present with the characters and could see the world as they saw it. But it was also strange. I wanted to physically move around with the characters but couldn’t as I would knock into people (while also looking silly).

And therein lies the problem: there’s no physical presence with VR - plus it’s very anti-social. At least with regular video entertainment you might get lost in a game but you are still aware of your surroundings. But with the VR headset and the headphones, I was literally locked in my own world with a complete unawareness of what was going on around me.

Speaker Robert Morgan, game writer and narrative designer, seemed to agree with my impressions in his speech to Nesta’s audience.

“A future where it is very difficult to know what other people are seeing when they walk down the street is incredibly interesting but also raises some serious ethical problems. I can see a future where the idea of people getting lost in virtual reality is not so much a worry as the idea that people no longer see the world in the same way.”

For Morgan, augmented reality is the better option because of its element of choice. At least you get to select how you see the world.

Speaker Zillah Watson, Editor at BBC Research and Development, sees the potential of using virtual reality to tell stories by taking us to “different places, understanding different people and how they live and witness events like we are really there.” But Watson also admitted the antisocial element of VR devices.

“I did go to one dinner in LA early this year where a lot of people spent the dinner wearing headsets,” she recounted to some chuckles from the audience.

“And it was very bizarre – anyone that wasn’t wearing a headset was on their phone. I think for a lot of people that won’t seem like a world they would want to inhabit.”

Another speaker, Dan O’Hara, senior lecturer in English at the New College of the Humanities, put an interesting historical spin on the whole virtual/augmented reality debate.

He says in the past we used to make things as “a means to gaining knowledge”. Now it is more: how can we possibly make VR if we don’t know what reality is? Interestingly, O’Hara then referred to the Egyptians being the first to come up with a similar Oculus Rift type system.

“We have a very long history of making things like artificial intelligence and virtual reality and it’s not restricted to the past 20 years,” O’Hara said.

“There is a coffin of an Egyptian king in a museum in Oxford. Its 4,000 years old and on the side of the coffin where the head would be there is a painting of two eyes and these are the eyes of the Egyptian God Horus. The Egyptians deployed extraordinary technologies to protect their kings and their valuables with shifting slabs and thick stone walls. But if you got past all that and a grave robber somehow penetrated into the inner sanctum and reached the coffin with the king in it – what would that grave robber see?

“He would see the coffin with the eyes of Horus on it and what these eyes permitted the king to do was continue to see after death – to see into the room in which he was entombed. So if you got past all that incredible protective technology you might reach the king and die of fright because he was staring at you.”

O’Hara says that this is an example of a “kind of virtual artificially intelligent system” that’s not dependent on the technologies we talk about today, but rather “a whole series of common social values and belief systems”.

The exciting prospects of virtual and augmented technology cannot be underestimated but the way these technologies will shape our perceptions of the world needs to be seriously considered. Technology-wise I still think we have some way to go. Even with the Samsung headgear, it felt immersive but also a bit blurry and, speaking personally, I don’t like the anti-social aspect of it. I think Morgan has the right idea where he sees the idea of “mixed reality as far more interesting, where augmented reality is less a mask and more a lens through which to see the world.”

But for now, it’s back to reality.


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London Tech Week: Making Augmented Reality as easy as Powerpoint »
Ayesha Salim

Ayesha Salim is Staff Writer at IDG Connect

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