AR, VR, Holodeck or Somewhere in Between

The interaction between marketing and manufacturing is supposed to determine success or failure of products and technologies. At least, this is the basis for every business book I have ever seen. After capitalism achieved victory over communism, we would assume that this is pretty much the basis for worldwide product development.

In recent years we have reached a new level of understanding for other drivers in technological and business development. For example, the term ‘environmental’ has outgrown its use as an advertising buzzword to make people pay more, and now describes something much more fundamental in the way we make and market things. In a similar way, we are seeing our social structures being challenged by social media. This development in particular is very interesting as it was already described as a doomsday scenario in many science fiction novels. Little did we know that there would be a generation that actually strives towards such conditions, and is willing to pay money for their participation in this ‘Big Brother’ scheme. Of course, this is all a matter of perspective.

Writing about display technology and the display industry in general rarely gives one the opportunity to think about philosophy. However, AR and VR are presenting us with exactly this opportunity. To go one step further, I would argue that the discussion about who will win the race to the consumer (AR or VR) requires a whole lot of philosophical examination.

When we look at the arguments between AR and VR we typically see that the difference is based on the existence of an optical combiner, which adds computer-generated content to our perception of real life (augmented reality). Does that mean that the computer-generated content becomes part of reality itself? Most will agree that this cannot be true, as there is only person is seeing it this way. From a philosophical perspective, this is true for us anyway. The subjective truth always varies from what my neighbour perceives, and we never can perceive the ‘real truth’. So, does adding something to our perception make reality less ‘true’ than without added content? In other words, my personally perceived reality is always different than the ‘real’ reality, and if I add something does it make the ‘real’ reality less real?

VR, on the other hand, aims to replace reality with a man-made form that draws us in and disconnects us from our surroundings. Yes, for now the aim is computer gaming, but what if the goal is to replace social interaction with a virtual experience? There has to be a reason why Facebook paid so much money for Oculus. Many science fiction authors have been exploring this particular question for decades, and now we are on the threshold of adding actual social data to their imagination. Of course, a science fiction novel exists only on paper and in our minds. The consequences of VR in real life, on the other hand, may create something that we have to live with no matter what.

Speaking of science fiction, we can look at one of the most well-known ‘devices’ in this area – the Holodeck from Star Treck – and ask ourselves which category it falls into: is it augmented or virtual reality? When our definition of VR is based on the use of computer-generated content, the Holodeck is indeed a VR device. When we think of a VR definition that includes a head mounted display which blocks our perception of the real world, though, it is obviously not a good fit. AR on the other hand adds something to reality, which doesn’t really fit the use of the Holodeck either. The Holodeck really becomes a new reality for the people using it, with the computer programme developing a kind of life itself. Maybe this is the ultimate form future social interaction; as such, will deleting a person from the Holodeck be punished in a future ‘virtual court of law’?

If a Holodeck reality is the ultimate goal, VR is definitely preparing us for the future, but while AR is almost like a teaser of that future. So what is the ultimate goal? I think that is exactly where the question of philosophical discussion comes into play. Where does this technological capability of AR and VR lead us to? Not all technological capabilities have been exploited in the past and for me it is unclear how the average consumer will react to this kind of technology. Google Glass being pulled as a general consumer device is possibly an indicator for exactly this issue. Is social awkwardness – being used as an explanation for Google’s decision – just another way of saying, ‘Nobody wants to look like an android’ or is it describing a more fundamental issue of the human mind in changing the fabric of our social interactions? There you have it: finally, a topic that allows us to discuss philosophy on Display Daily! – NH