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September 2017

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Page 29 of 43 28 POST SEPTEMBER 2017 R pioneer Mark Bolas relayed this anecdote while we were discussing the development of virtual-reality and head-mounted display (HMD) technology. When he was a teenager, work- ing in a photographer's studio, he would closet himself in the darkroom, with all lights off, in the pitch black, and then would wiggle the fingers on his visually invisible hand, but force his brain to imagine a hand anyway . This is the core of the spirit and vision of virtu- al-reality (VR) technology: the ambition to coerce the brain into believing it is seeing "real" worlds. Virtual reality, augmented reality (AR), and mixed reality (MR) are the latest innovations in the tsunami of disruptive technologies that have sur- faced during the last two or three decades as we have learned to live and work with computers. Most people will have heard about these de- velopments and possibly tried one of the HMDs available now while sampling the growing list of apps that are used with them. But we are in the early years of consumer VR gear, so expect to hear and see more head-mounted displays in the future. In fact, the current versions are already being replaced, and one day, perhaps soon, those, too, will be overtaken by technologies that researchers have only just begun to imagine. These technologies will evolve from novelty to commonplace soon enough, just as the mobile phone did years ago. For now, they are a rarity, an indulgence for the enthusiasts. But, you can expect that within 20 years at most, the majority of people in advanced economies will use what- ever HMDs have become by then — a device as light as a pair of wraparound Ray-Bans, maybe even just contact lenses, and capable of covering all one's computer and communications needs. A one-stop telecom device people can carry in their pocket or wear over their eyes, or even plug directly into their brain, given time (research on this has already started). INNOVATION "The long nose of innovation." That is how Bill Buxton, a principal scientist at Microsoft Research, describes the way all so-called break- throughs result from many small, incremental developments over long periods of time before they come to the attention of the wider world. In the case of virtual-reality technology and soft- ware, that incremental process — from the earli- est research and development of the dedicated hardware and software — has been going on for more than 25 years at least. Currently, the quality of the computer graph- ics used with HMDs is not much better than the graphics imagery of late-1990s video games. But this is merely the stage we're at, and it is rapidly improving all the time. How sophisticated those virtual environments may yet become, how "real" they may yet appear, and where they may take us as we become accustomed to them are questions already being discussed. Some tweaks of hard- ware, some major upgrades in Internet delivery, and there is no intrinsic, technological limit to what becomes possible. Games, entertainment, new forms of narrative, virtual experiences, plus all the potential business uses are just now getting started. Over the next two or three decades, however, we are going to grow accustomed to virtual and mixed realities in our everyday lives. Bolas has been given the nickname "the godfather of VR" by his peers. He is generally acknowledged as the most significant pioneer of research into virtual reality, analyzing the issues of representing a consistent 360-degree computer-generated environment that the brain would find believable. These days, Bolas de- scribes himself as "a researcher exploring Alternate States THE PRESENT REALITY OF VR, AR, AND MR BY RORY FELLOWES V R/A R V SPECIAL REPORT: The Building Conversation App is aimed at helping improve communication between architect professionals and their clients.

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