This National Engineering Day (November 2) Gareth Ward reflects on the advancement of virtual reality and looks at how new technologies might impact us in the future.
The evolution of technology impacts on industry, education, and society as a whole. This might sound obvious to say, but it’s important to reflect and learn where transformative technologies have been adopted into our lives, and to try and predict how other new technologies might impact on us in the future. Extended Reality (XR) technologies are said by some to be the next set of technologies to have a major impact on us all.
Take the advent of the smartphone, or more specifically, the iPhone and Android devices, and how today it seems that everyone has one in some form. The iPhone came about due to the miniaturisation and merger of a whole range of existing technologies, including the basic mobile phone, handheld games consoles, Personal Data Assistants (PDA), portable digital cameras and more besides.
This is important to recognise because this is happening right now, as you read this, with XR technologies today.
XR encompasses Virtual Reality (VR), Mixed Reality (MR) and Augmented Reality (AR) – all of which are on a continuum of experiential technologies. Some of these have been in use for decades, ranging from the HUD found on fight jets in the 60s, through to SatNav devices in the 2000s, and modern image filters used when taking photos in WhatsApp and Instagram today.
Today, XR is spread across myriad of hardware and software systems and is fragmented, however the related technologies have already started to change how we engage with each other. For example, AR can be used as an entryway to provide an additional digital layer in meeting rooms, enabling greater levels of interaction with data. Similarly, VR can be used with off-the-shelf applications in classrooms to provide students access to far-off locations that they might not be able to afford to travel to.
As these technologies mature, imagine how powerful they will become once merged together and XR’s iPhone moment occurs. This will bring the use of VR, AR and MR into everyday usage; a new mindset will then be required to make use of them.
As with all technology, XR won’t replace other digital and non-digital tools. Much like the smartphone of today, we still use desktop PCs, home videogame consoles and the humble pen and paper. XR will become a widespread additional way to engage with a whole manner of experiences, whether for professional, educational or entertainment purposes.
VR has already shown its strength to enable a greater level of remote communications and collaborations, and this will only grow further. Imagine a future where a device the size of normal reading glasses can interface with, and present data from your Smartphone. This device would not just show simple plain text, but fully simulated 3D worlds, able to be interacted with the wave of a hand. With continual advancements in technology, it is inevitable that this will happen – it’s not a case of ‘if’ but ‘when’.
Learning how to use these technologies today will help us understand how to maximise the benefits they can provide once they mature in the future, in industry, education, entertainment and across our digitally connected society.
Gareth Ward is Senior Lecturer in Computing in the School of Engineering, Technology and Design.