A leading expert has predicted that the boundaries between virtual reality and the real world will blur over the next five years, as advancements in eye-tracking and optics create worlds that merge with our surroundings. Michael Abrash, chief scientist at Oculus, said that foveated rendering and head-related transfer function (HRTF) audio would be just some of the developments that make this happen.
“We are in the leading edge of one of the most important technological revolutions of our lifetime,” Abrash told the audience at Thursday’s Oculus presentation. “VR is going to leap ahead over the next five years.”
Abrash describes this merging of VR and the real world as “augmented VR,” distinguished from traditional A.R. in that it detects and simulates real-world objects in the VR space. A.R. headsets like the Microsoft HoloLens rely on translucent lenses that superimpose virtual objects on the real world, allowing natural light to pass through and provide the wearer with an awareness of their surroundings.
“There would no longer be a sharp line between VR and reality,” Abrash said. “Instead we’d have a mixed reality that would let us choose whatever elements of each we’d want at any time.”
Something that’s going to stay an issue for a while, though, is humans. Abrash said that virtual avatars are feasible, but they won’t be realistic enough to ever get mistaken for real people. The fact that they won’t be able to move beyond the “uncanny valley” means people are going to be interacting with cartoon-like puppet guys. It may serve as a stop-gap, but it’ll probably be kind of creepy interacting with a cartoon figure as if they’re a person. The big jumps, Abrash reassured the audience, will come further down the line.
To make augmented VR happen, the headsets need to get better. Abrash said that today’s Oculus gear will look ancient by comparison. “The VR five years from now will make today’s VR look like something out of prehistory,” he said.
With a higher resolution to increase immersion (Abrash predicts 4K for each eye), graphics cards will need more power. Foveated rendering can help by tracking the eye and only rendering the parts the eye wants to focus on. This, coupled with head-related transfer function (HRTF) audio that models how the sounds may act in a virtual space, will make interacting with real-world objects simulated in VR feel less jarring.
Blurring the real world and virtual reality will pave the way for new workspaces, games, outlandish new environments, and social settings that use real-world furniture. “Together these advances will make it possible to create a system that will revolutionize the way we work,” Abrash said.