The Curse of Pygmalion: VR and AR Is at a Dead Endby@romanaxelrod
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5,640 reads

The Curse of Pygmalion: VR and AR Is at a Dead End

by Roman AxelrodMay 21st, 2024
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Roman Axelrod is the founder of XPANCEO, a company that develops virtual reality and augmented reality technology. He believes that the future lies in XR technology and spatial computing. In his ideal world, such a gadget would be used to display some entertainment content and address healthcare issues and communication.
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Let’s try to guess what the near future of the VR/AR industry might look like if the key players of this market continue to develop in the way they are doing now.

Everything is simple: it is a device, a helmet, or glasses weighing 300- 600 grams (sometimes more), with elements made of glass, plastic, or aluminum, and operation time of up to several hours. Undoubtedly, it looks great. Almost like in the science fiction novel “Ready Player One” by Ernest Klein.

It seems that you can hardly enter the actual parallel digital reality with such a gadget in everyday life. Surely, it will be a disaster for your neck…

I do believe the core problem is hidden in the philosophy of technology itself. I keep asking myself, why are we still trying to put a huge box capable of doing some calculations directly on top of our heads? Why do we do this instead of solving the problem in a more sophisticated way, with a device that is dozens (or even hundreds) of times lighter, smaller, and, more importantly, can be mass-produced?

I do believe that the future lies in XR technology and spatial computing. Their potential is so huge and promising that an XR gadget can easily become a versatile device for any kind of purpose.

Let me explain what I mean by this.

In my ideal world, such a gadget would be used not only to display some entertainment content but also to address healthcare issues and communication and, perhaps, for us all to evolve into something more as a biological species. Still, let’s not jump ahead of ourselves.

Now seems like a good time to give you some more detailed explanations of what VR, AR, and XR are.

VR or Virtual Reality — is a virtual reality where a user only sees a digital environment. One can view this environment by using a special gadget.

AR or Augmented Reality— is an augmented real world. The user has some kind of gadget through which he can observe the surrounding real environment. But, at the same time, he can see the added digital objects around him.

Finally, XR or Extended Reality is the common definition of a whole set of virtual technologies. XR covers a wide range of hardware and software solutions, including sensor interfaces, apps, and their infrastructure. The point is that XR can be used widely, from gaming to completing business tasks in healthcare, architecture, education, and so on. The applications are essentially limited only by your imagination.

It seems that the current VR industry is an absolute dead end. That is because the main focus is on VR/AR technology, which, by definition, has limited functionality. But, to prove this, we’ll have to go back deep in time, about a century or so!

So, within this manifesto, we’ll try to answer the question of what the future holds for us. I’m Roman Axelrod, the founder of XPANCEO — let’s figure it out together!

The History of VR

Do you want to know what I find the funniest? The idea of an augmented reality device was conceived back in 1935. At that time, the novel “Pygmalion’s Glasses” by American science fiction writer Stanley Weinbaum was published. According to the novel’s plot, one professor invented spectacles that let you create an optical, auditory, gustatory, kinesthetic, and olfactory illusion of reality.

Note that Pygmalion’s Spectacles actually had all the features that modern devices promise us. They even look like the standard AR glasses.  In general, the device doesn’t seem to differ much from the up-to-date gadgets.

Remember these — Pygmalion’s Spectacles. We’ll need them later on. From the early 50’s and right up to the early 90’s, while the technology was being mastered, a great number of unordinary VR gadgets were developed. And they were all supposed to function like Pygmalion.  Sensorama

Initially, such gadgets occupied half the space of a room. For example, the Sensorama “film booth”, which was designed and developed by cinematographer Morton Heilitt in 1956. Inside it, there were film projectors displaying images and speakers playing stereo sound. There was even a vibrating armchair and a device to simulate odors!

By 1968, the American scientist Ivan Sutherland introduced the very first computerized VR- helmet called the Sword of Damocles to the public.

The device, which looked a bit like a medieval torture tool, could smoothly produce simple 3D models of various geometric shapes. It could also change the position of the head in the environment to change the image perspective.

pyg3.webp “The Sword of Damocles”

At a glance, these prototypes look absolutely bizarre. You are supposed to put this incomprehensible box on your head and make yourself feel uncomfortable just to watch some content. Everybody understood that the world needed VR, but the way it was realized seemed odd.

However, these were the computer games that boosted the industry's development the most. By the way, they did it twice while VR technology was still in existence.

Early 90's

Since the early 90s, all kinds of VR helmets, hand-tracking gloves, and other nice stuff for immersing yourself in the digital world started to take over the mass market. Nintendo, with its Virtual BoyLink, was one of the key pioneers in this field.  Monochrome display, awkward ergonomics.

Forte VFX1 helmet with MS-DOS on-board lets you play the shooters of that time in VR. pyg5.webp No doubt, DOOM looked impressive in such a headset.

In total, dozens of devices were introduced to the market. However, by 2000, the VR boom began its downturn. For sure, each device of that period was a true engineering masterpiece and a miracle. Now, it’s hardly believable that all these gadgets were created 20 or even 30 years ago!

Still, the following drawbacks emerged:

  • Exorbitant cost
  • Awkward and unfriendly ergonomics
  • Short operation time
  • No content
  • Lack of comfort for daily use (weight does make a difference!)

Does that ring any bells? Exactly! All modern VR gadgets have the same drawbacks. Come on, in the whole time the industry has existed, has no one figured out how to deal with it, or made any conclusions?

It’s absolutely clear that if a technology does not evolve throughout a significant period of time, it’s a dead end, isn’t it?

VR Today

Anyway, the VR industry has successfully plunged into the abyss of oblivion for decades until it resurrected again, primarily because people do love VR.

You probably know what I’m talking about. This is Oculus Rift — the resurrection of VR. It’s the young guy known to us as Palmer Lucky, who literally turned into a techno occultist and pulled the entire industry out of the grave. Palmer has been crazy about VR since his teen years. His holy grail was to create the VR helmet of his dreams. After creating a prototype, he launched his project on Kickstarter in 2012, and it was a huge success.

And a true renaissance broke out! 600 days after the project’s launch, Facebook acquired Oculus Rift. At the same time,** Valve** started to develop its own helmet, and even** Microsoft** announced its VR developments. And Apple’s Vision Pro helmet became the pinnacle of the trend.

So, Vision Pro had two in-built 4K 100Hz Micro-OLED displays on board. The viewing angle — 110 degrees. To interact with the outside world and track the user’s positions, engineers equipped it with 12 cameras. It sounds great, but don’t forget that it weighs 600 grams. The external battery life varies from two to four hours. And the base version will cost you 3500 USD.

All in all, it is really well made, and it costs a whole lot of money. And the rocks we’re chipping away at are still the same as decades ago:

  • Uncomfortable

  • Large

  • Weighty

  • No content

  • Short operation time

So, the industry giants joined the race. But, to be honest, all the engineers achieved either in Vision Pro or in Meta Quest was just upgrading the hardware and fitting it into a form factor from the 90s.

Personally, I call it the Curse of Pygmalion. Almost a hundred years ago, Stanley Weinbaum set the standard that today’s engineers are trying to reproduce.

If we take a look at the PC market, the development of VR started exactly in the same way. In the beginning, there was a huge machine that occupied an entire room. Then, while the technology developed and matured, its dimensions decreased. As a result, now we have smartphones.

However, if we are talking about VR gadgets, their development stopped somewhere in the early 90s. Sounds like a dead end, doesn’t it? Let’s say Apple upgrades its helmet and equips it with, for example, an M10 chipset and the most advanced cameras of that time. The gadget would work ten times faster and display incredible image quality, but it would still be a helmet with, most likely, a limited field of view, and you would still have to wear it on your head.

It seems like we humans have already gone down the wrong path of VR gadget development. We try to fit very complex components like screens, cameras, or batteries into a small piece of electronics. Instead, we have to figure out how to avoid doing so.

But before we get down to this issue, we really do have to speculate a little about another important thing — AR glasses!

Most importantly, we’ll finally find out what kind of device is to become the key XR gadget.

So, stay tuned!

To Be Continued…