C.G. Masi Weblog

Virtual vs. Augmented Reality

11 December 2017 - A press release crossed my desk this morning from market research company GlobalData reiterating a point I touched lightly on in my 2016 article Immersive Virtual Reality: Medium and Message. The GlobalData release quoted Technology Analyst Josh Hewer's comment: "VR is the total emersion within a virtual space that can often be sold as a form of escapism. However, the future will not be about escaping reality, but rather augmenting the existing space within the digital world."

Deja Vu helmet image
The danger of driving while distracted by augmented reality technology is depicted in the 2006 film Deja Vu

I heartily agree, especially for non-entertainment applications. If you're just going for entertainment, immersive virtual reality has its merits, although mixed with some drawbacks. For most applications, however, augmented reality is the way to go.

The big technical issue with AR is, as noted in my 2016 article:

"... matching the VR presentation to the ambient environment. The hope is that it will be possible to add VR objects into the ambient scene in such a way that they will appear as part of the scene. The difficulty is, of course, that the ambient environment is chaotic. It is impossible to predict with accuracy where the virtual objects should be placed in the visual field to match the positions of actual objects in the chaotic ambient scene. The VR system, therefore, will need to sense and understand the ambient scene from the user's actual point of view to calculate the positions and orientations of the VR objects it projects to create AVR."

One quick-and-dirty solution to this problem was demonstrated in Tony Scott's 2006 film Deja Vu. The main character tries to drive in traffic using an AR headset that presents the VR world to one eye only, allowing the other eye to view the real world. Harmonizing perception of virtual with ambient reality is left to the user's brain.

In the film, the problem with the system appears to be masking of stereoscopic depth perception while driving, which leads to several crashes.

I can report from experience that that's all pure Hollywood. You can drive perfectly well with on eye masked. There are plenty of depth cues available without stereoscopic vision. I know because I once had to drive in Boston traffic with one eye bandaged due to a medical emergency. No accidents to report. I very soon ripped off the bandage because I hated losing the peripheral vision it blocked, but I had no trouble figuring out how far I was from other vehicles.

The film, however, pointed out a much more important issue, which I forgot to mention in my article: distraction!

In the film, the VR display eventually presents an image so compelling to the driver that he fails to notice an impending head-on collision with an oncoming semi-trailer truck.

Only quick action by the truck driver slamming on the braks prevents the film ending right there with a fatal crash. Our hero's vehicle comes out of it in drivable condition, but his VR display is (thankfully) destroyed and he thereafter has to drive without it.

These difficulties are not insurmountable, of course. A survey of the current state of the AR art is beyond the scope of this blog posting, but it is obvious that we can expect more or less gradual improvements over time leading asymptotically to perfect alignment of ambient and virtual components of reality as presented to the AR user.

Answering the film, robotic assistance is already available for distracted drivers who can no longer be expected to pay attention. God knows, driving around in Southern Florida this time of year shows the already alarming percentage of drivers who are totally oblivious to their surroundings!

The future belongs to AR.

And, robots.