The Most Intelligent Things in Virtual, Augmented, and Mixed Reality

Illustrations: Leonard Dupond  

People have been imagining new ways to interact with reality for decades—primarily in science fiction. For the most part those visions of manipulating floating holograms and immersive universes at our fingertips have been just that: fiction. But not anymore.

Now, VR headsets and software applications are cheaper and more accessible than ever, bringing literal world-altering technology to the masses and sparking new industries along the way. The market for virtual reality and its nascent cousin augmented reality is predicted to reach $95 billion by 2025. As VR, AR, and emerging mixed reality continue to gain traction and find more real-world applications, they will transform how we communicate with one another and ultimately become a totally new platform for creators and consumers alike.

These virtual and augmented realities are here. They’re lucrative. What follows are the real-world applications driving the commerce and conversation.

Augmented Reality Apps

Augmented reality refers to any digital artifice overlaid onto the real world, commonly viewed through a screen or camera lens. It can be something as simple as Snapchat’s face swap feature, which allows users to virtually transplant someone else’s face onto their own or augment their appearance with effects like a glowing flower crown.

AR is the driving force behind one of the biggest cultural crazes this year: Pokémon Go. Using GPS on their smartphones, players navigate locally in search of digital creatures that appear on-screen via the phone’s camera. Within days of its initial release, Pokémon Go had more American users than Twitter and in a week’s time became the most downloaded mobile game in U.S. history. It’s clear that the ability to augment our appearance, and that of the world around us, has struck a chord.

Virtual Reality in Health Care

VR isn’t all about transporting us to far-off places just to see something cool. It also has incredible therapeutic applications. Opioid addiction has become an epidemic in America and legal painkiller prescriptions can inadvertently lead to dependency. But VR could be an effective pain treatment for patients.

That is the goal of DeepStream VR’s program COOL!, which immerses users in serene interactive environments in an attempt to provide escape from pain. A DeepStream study showed that patients who used Oculus Rift VR displays to explore and play in these worlds reported 60% to 70% reductions in pain during treatment, and for up to 48 hours after treatment experienced no dizziness, nausea, or headaches.

The concept is similar to the USC Institute for Creative Technologies’ Bravemind, a virtual reality exposure therapy aimed at providing relief to patients who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. Currently in use at more than 60 locations, including VA hospitals, under the guidance of trained therapists, the technology exposes patients to past memories, allowing them to confront trauma through a controlled retelling of their experiences. This technology could change the lives of frequently misdiagnosed U.S. veterans who return from deployment at risk for developing PTSD.

360° Video Storytelling

Perhaps the most digestible form of virtual reality, 360-degree video puts the audience firmly at the center of the action with high-tech cameras that record from all angles. Viewers are transported to distant countries for a firsthand look at other cultures or to some of the hardest-to-reach places on earth, like the top of Mount Everest, using a VR headset or by clicking and dragging their mouse around the video in their Facebook feeds.

LG and Samsung have put the power of immersive storytelling in the hands of consumers with affordable, easy-to-use 360-degree video cameras. At the same time, Adobe and Facebook are pioneering from the software end with updates that allow users to edit, upload, and share 360-degree video content. The medium has already taken off: Users have uploaded more than 20,000 videos through the Facebook 360 feature, and total daily viewership is in the millions.

Mixed Reality: AR You Can Touch

What may be the wild card of the bunch, mixed reality describes interactive digital images. Florida-based startup Magic Leap is a mixed reality pioneer that uses chip-based technology to produce digital objects that interact with actual physical space. Magic Leap employs a piece of transparent material that looks and wears almost exactly like eyeglass lenses, pushing the brain to act like a graphics processor and eliciting visions of Minority Report. You’ll soon be able to interact with these digital objects, manipulating their shape, size, color, and other characteristics. Such capabilities could change how we approach work, transporting us from our desks and into the field with everything we need projected right in front of us.