One of the many world-changing aspects of the Internet is the way it makes global communications trivially simple for the ordinary user. Using freely available software, organizing in a conference with multiple people in multiple other countries is nearly as easy as striking up a chat with your next door neighbor.
Of course, the exact nature of those communications is often less than ideal. Text has been proven again and again to be less effective than face-to-face interactions in terms of enabling real human connections. Even setting aside considerations of body language and facial expression, there is a certain level of disconnection when reading text that is a matter of our brain chemistry. We are visual creatures, and our brains are wired to respond to what our eyes tell us. This isn’t new thinking, and the communications field is practically overloaded with apps to help us make better connections online. Video conferences have largely overtaken text chats for any kind of in-depth communications, and even social media is following the trend with the advent of software like Google Hangouts and Facebook Live.
Technology is always changing and improving, and it appears that the next frontier in digital communications is virtual reality, augmented reality, and mixed reality technology. Communications technology at its best is about bringing people together across vast distances. It completely hides the gap of physical distance, so you can have a smooth, natural, face-to-face interaction with friends, family or business associates no matter where you are actually located. In essence, chat and conference software immerses you in the conversation. You forget the realities and limitations of the physical world, and can communicate naturally from anywhere. Virtual reality excels at immersion and at removing us from the physical world, and so it seems certain that VR communications are the way of the future.
Thought leaders in the software and consumer electronics industries agree that VR communications is approaching fast. They’ve known it for over 20 years, when a team of academics assembled to write Communications in the Age of Virtual Reality (Amazon), a massive tome filled with predictions and analysis of what VR might mean in years to come. Here are some of the most interesting things happening in the space, from wild speculation to concrete products.
As the parent company of Oculus, it’s not surprising that Facebook is at the forefront of the VR communications movement. CEO Mark Zuckerberg has been very up front about his plans for the technology for years now, since the social media giant acquired the firm that pioneered modern VR. In an official press release earlier in 2016, Facebook detailed their plans and progress.
In April, they dropped their metaphorical bomb. At the Facebook F8 Conference 2016, CTO Mike Schroepfer and team member Michael Booth demonstrated their new Social VR concept. Using Oculus Rift head-mounted displays and Oculus Touch controllers, the pair shared photos, dressed up their virtual avatars, and even took a virtual selfie inside a 360° photo of London. The presentation was a mind-blowing look at the future of virtual reality communications, and the video has to be seen to be believed.
Google, the other 800lb gorilla of tech, has its own thoughts on the possibilities of VR in conferences, chat, and communications. The development team working on Google’s upcoming mobile VR platform Daydream published a blog entry detailing the state of the field as they see it.
Google’s philosophy with Daydream is to lower the barrier to entry and reach as many people as possible. A logical evolution of Cardboard, the Daydream platform relies on cell phones to serve as the computational center of the VR experience. Moreover, their think piece speaks on ways to emotionally and mentally immerse the user into the simulation, giving users a sense of place and of connection with those around them. Avatars, according to the Daydream team, don’t need to be complex polygonal constructions or photorealistic representations of their users. “Just a floating head with googly eyes,” they say, can “still convey a surprising degree of emotion, intent, and a number of social cues.” The presence of an avatar at all, in any form, adds to the feeling of shared presence that is so crucial to meaningful communications.
While Facebook and Google’s VR experiences are still largely theoretical, one company has brought their product to market and been greatly rewarded. AltSpaceVR, a startup founded in 2013 with backing from a number of venture capital firms interested in virtual reality (including Google Ventures) has released several VR applications. Their eponymous AltSpaceVR is a shared virtual environment in which people around the world can chat, play games, and otherwise interact in a variety of exotic locations.
It is their VR Call app that is more exciting from the communications perspective, however. Released in April for Gear-compatible Android phones, VR Call is essentially a video conference app for the virtual reality era. Leveraging the Samsung Gear’s mobile phone roots, the app allows users to take their phone calls into the virtual world. Users can interact with each other using gestures and body language to a degree that was impossible before the advent of this new technology.
Although other virtual and augmented reality companies are working on similar apps, most notably Microsoft with their Holoportation technology, AltSpaceVR is one of the first to come to market. More significantly, they have done it the accessible hardware and low barrier to entry afforded by the Gear VR platform. This is key to widespread adoption, and puts AltSpaceVR in an excellent position to lead the market.
For VR early adopters, one stumbling point became obvious very quickly. How can users stay in touch with the real world while wearing the headset? Although it is tempting to simply enjoy the virtual space for hours on end, most people do need to keep one foot in the real world. The phone could ring, someone could walk into the room, or any number of other things could happen that need the user’s attention.
When designing the Vive, HTC wisely took this reality into account. Aside from the Vive’s front-facing camera, which can provide awareness of the user’s real-world surroundings with the touch of a button, HTC has developed a free companion app for iOS and Android devices that solves a very common fear: missing a phone call or text message. The app ties to the head-mounted display, and allows phone calls and text messages to appear in the virtual world as discreet pop-ups. Messages can be handled immediately, or stored in a notification tray for later. As HTC says, “Don’t miss what’s important IRL while you’re in VR.”
Most digital communication mediums lack a combination of verbal, facial and/or body language cues that take place during face-to-face conversations. Reality technologies allow parties communicating with eachother to add onto already existing video chat technologies (e.g. Skype, FaceTime) with features such as location-mapping visuals and augmented images. The infographic below comes from TechCrunch's peice titled "How The Growth Of Mixed Reality Will Change Communication, Collaboration And The Future Of The Workplace" illustrates how reality technologies stimulate our communicatory senses.
In many ways, almost all virtual reality, mixed reality, and augmented reality applications qualify as a form of communication in one way or another. From playing a game with a neighbor to conducting a business conference with partners on another continent, reality technologies enables people to connect like never before. This is an exciting time for technology enthusiasts. The old slogan “the future is now” holds true today more so than ever before, and it might be only a matter of time before the VR headset becomes as ubiquitous as the television.