Saturday 8 August 2015

The Myth of Virtual Reality

Let me try to write something here that's been bothering me for a couple of years now.  I've attempted to write a post on it a few times but always ended up thinking it was too self indulgent.  There's always a danger when you write that you are doing it for the simple pleasure of hearing your own self prattle on.  That's probably the case here, but it's a Saturday morning, I just made coffee and you've been warned.

All due respect and accomplishments aside:

 "Thanks for nothing, Jaron Lanier!"

Jaron Lanier is accredited with coining the term "Virtual Reality" almost 30 years ago, and I believe the name has done the technology a great disservice over the long run. Yes, he gets full marks for finding a term that fires the imagination but... man.... talk about setting a technology up for failure...

Damn it Jaron.  Why??!?!

Let me give you a few examples of making common technology instantly dissatisfying by renaming it to something that contains lofty promise:

Hand Twin

Electric Motion Paper

Mind Expander
Ridiculous right?  These would make terrible names for practical devices that help our lives and represent core components in computing.  Names like these might set unreasonably high expectations in terms of what they can do.  A monitor isn't paper, nor a mouse a hand, but they are all terribly useful devices with their own unique strengths.  A mouse is far more precise than your hand for certain tasks, a monitor has infinitely more possibility than a printed page etc.... you get the point...

Pretty silly right? That's why I'm so glad that we live in a world where we are above such...


...well..... shit.

Jaron Lanier, must be a certified genius because he really could not have stacked the deck against VR much worse than  choosing this as the name for a fledgling technology.  With enough time and energy you might conceivable come up with a device that is even better than print or a manipulator that might give the human hand a run for its money, but here we are faced with reproducing reality as a whole.  Brilliantly talented as our hardware and software wizards are, it really doesn't quite seem fair.


What's in a name?  

Maybe a great deal.

Does it really matter?

Yes, I think it just might.

- - -

I think this name might just have condemned the whole VR industry to forever carry with it a need to grovel and apologize on some basic level.

NAMELESS VR CEO - "Yeah, we are pretty happy with this iteration after a billion invested in research, we really nailed the optics and input... of course it isn't as good as reality yet but... maybe some day... um, we'll keep working on it.  Next year... " - hangs head and walks off stage.

It reminds me a bit of the same kind of problems we face with space travel.  Endless dissatisfaction with were we are in our progress.  Oh, you landed on the moon, great.  What about mars?  Made it to mars, fine.  Why aren't we living there?  Oh, and what are you doing about that asteroid problem I just saw a movie about, are you on top of that?

I'm such a failure.  (image via this odd source)

Now, I'm going to point my finger at the name and I am also going to point my finger at the industry as a whole for making things worse by trying to live up to this name.  I am also going to hold the name responsible for clouding industry minds and enabling weird stuttering responses to the simple question of:

"What is this technology going to be used for?"

See, when you've set up this unreasonable expectation that VR will transport you to a different reality, it is then a bit hard to transition to a practical conversation about a business use case in the same breath.

"You'll feel like you are actually there, you heart will race and you will will forget you are standing in your office............ while you review Q1 projections in VR."

If you talk about a device having properties to transcend reality and confuse the senses then it gets hard, really hard to talk about it real world terms.

Let's throw out all the fantasy and take a hard look at what we've built and why it is important.

I think we all need to stop and take a breath for a moment and reassess where we are trying to go.

- - -

If you've been following the industry for the past few years, you'll see a few acronyms being flung around, usually at high speed and with an intent to maim their targets.

 • SDE (screen door effect - can you discern pixels in the HMD?)
 • FOV (field of view - how much of the simulation fills your vision.)

You'll often see comments along these lines:

"Pretty pronounced SDE with this HMD, I could see the pixels and it really kept reminding me that this wasn't real."

"The FOV must have been around 100 degrees or so, it took me right out of the experience and I could easily tell I wasn't really flying, nor was I an eagle.  Disappointing."

"The motion controls perfectly tracked my movement in space, no matter how hard I tried to throw it off, it's exactly like my hands in space, except I don't have fingers?  Why don't they give me fingers? I clearly have them on my hands so obviously I need them here too."

In other words:  <blah blah blah> ....Sorry, I could tell it wasn't real.

This is really just setting us up for nothing but an endless pit of iterative disappointment.

- - -

We are stuck with the name though.  it's been around for a good long while and won't be going anywhere soon. Unless perhaps.... we can quietly co-opt the VR acronym over time.  Run a campaign of guerrilla warfare on nomenclature.  I've recently noted that Valve's Alan Yates (the designer behind the HTC Vive's lighthouse system) has been using the term "Volumetric Display" during his more pensive moments:

Which is pretty spot on in terms of where we are going if you take a look at the corresponding definition in Wikipedia:

Tip:  Running a google image search on the term "volumetric display" never disappoints if you are looking for some daily inspiration.


Ok, so that might be a good stand in for our "V", what about the "R"?  I'm not going to struggle on this too much so I'll put the word "representation" down on the board, using chalk so that it can easily be replaced.  I actually like the word representation, as that's what most computing deals with, its just a fancy extrapolation of those cave drawings slapped on the wall by early man.

Really you want a term that will cover the whole VR ecosystem, from the displays to the various manipulators and control devices.  "Volumetric Representation" nice and general and embraces all of these devices:



So, let's pretend now, on this quiet Saturday morning, that we want to redefine VR as not standing for "Virtual Reality" but rather for "Volumetric Representation".  (I realize this is all very indulgent, but I did warn you to be fair.)

Let's compare how this feels now with a pop quiz:

1) My HTC Vive wand is a:

A.  Virtual reality hand.
B.  A volumetric representation of my hand.
C.  This blog post is too long.

2)  When I use Oculus Touch to manipulate my company data, I think I am...

A.  Losing myself in a new reality that is virtual.
B.  Working with data represented volumetrically.
C.  I hate spreadsheets and would never do this.

3)  When I play games, I am looking for:

A.  A new reality to in place of the one I was born into.
B.  The most immersive experience I can get.
C.  I don't play games and prefer spreadsheets.

I can't speak for everyone out there, but I've never looked to VR as something that would one day effectively replace my reality.  I've already got enough reality to last me a lifetime.

Rather, I see VR as the ultimate tool for surrounding myself with what I have always loved.  I want VR to give me more time by connecting me immediately to the things I care about most.  Let me work with representations of things rather than cluttering up my home with physical objects.  Let me keep track of the people in my life and connect with them in a shared computing space.  Let me wander through data and media with the same fascination I might have picking my way through Tokyo or New Delhi.

This isn't a new reality, this is simply the next extension of the treasured experience computers have already been providing us for years.  Let's embrace it for the wonder that it is rather than disparage it for what isn't.

My coffee has run out so I'll leave off here.  Lucky you.

Give me a shout at @ID_R_McGregor on Twitter, or send me an email at or leave a comment below.


  1. Volumetric Representation to Virtual Reality is no better than Hand Twin is to mouse.

    1. How did you come to that conclusion? It's almost like the words above were lost on you....I thought it was spot on.

    2. How did you come to that conclusion? It's almost like the words above were lost on you....I thought it was spot on.

  2. Volumetric Representation to Virtual Reality is no better than Hand Twin is to mouse.

    1. Is this a volumetric representation of your first post, or are you just spamming?

    2. Is this a volumetric representation of your first post, or are you just spamming?

  3. Great post. I think Volumetric Representation is a much better description of what you're getting, regardless of how much the technology advances, or at least it sets your expectations a bit lower than wildly unrealistic. Also, as you say, it helps frame the business proposition. You're not getting virtual reality but rather an enhanced reality: better communication tools, better social interaction tools, better gaming, better visualization and understanding of abstract information, etc. Ya, if my screen was sold to me as Electric Motion Paper I'd be very disappointed. Nothing beats the real thing.

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