Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality Tech From Movies – Fantasy vs. Reality

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Differences Between Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality

In a recent Economist article on the differences between Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality, they simplified AR and VR down to a film reference: “If virtual reality is “The Matrix”, then Augmented Reality is “Terminator.”  Though this generalization helps with the broader concepts of AR vs. VR, it doesn’t quite help explain all the different technologies that need further development to make these AR and VR concepts a reality. We’ll take a look at some popular Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality tech from movies and review what is cinematic fantasy or near term reality.

Virtual Reality - Simulated Worlds

Virtual Reality – Simulated Worlds

If you were alive in the 1990’s, you rode the initial VR wave. From the Virtual Boy headset to numerous Virtual Reality films, the promise was to transport you to a virtual world where you could become a digital god in The Lawnmower Man or do a neural jack-in to learn Kung Fu in The Matrix. What most of these films had in common was a person interfacing with a variety of devices to interact with and within a simulated world. Futurist Ray Kurzweil predicts that we will be closer to these Matrix-like VR experiences in 20-25 years. However, current VR technology is much closer to the HTC Vive’s Tilt Brush experience and relies on more structured experiences within a predefined physical space. Hand tracking, full body tactile feedback, spatial mapping and a host of other issues need to evolve before VR can approach a fraction of the virtual immersion promised in films. So while Virtual Reality as a film concept is often used to explain Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, current VR will likely be relegated to a fun experience you immerse yourself within your man cave.

Virtual Reality - Collaboration / Automation

Virtual Reality – Collaboration / Automation

Another popular VR concept has been the ability to utilize glasses for collaborative virtual reality tasks. The Michael Crichton book and film Disclosure utilizes Virtual Reality in a rather impractical way where virtual systems can be accessed and virtual collaboration can occur. With a different take on virtual collaboration, the 2008 film Sleep Dealer shows how virtual offshoring for manual labor leverages VR and gestural control. HoloLens technology is already showing how virtual collaboration works in your physical space (and is eerily similar to this scene from Disclosure) while AltSpaceVR is attempting collaboration within virtual space. Current remote control drone technology, gesture controlled robots and advancements with shared gestural interactions makes Sleep Dealer’s dystopian vision even closer to reality.

Augmented Reality - Gesture Control

Augmented Reality – Gesture Control

The most commonly used movie reference to portray how we will use AR to interact with virtual objects is Iron Man. Tony Stark starts up J.A.R.V.I.S and can grab and turn virtual objects out of the air using only his hand. How he actually sees and has advanced interactions with the virtual objects with no eye wear is one issue and holographic technology wouldn’t allow for what is seen in the film.  However, Google, Samsung and other companies are trying to make Augmented Reality contact lenses a reality. What is more near term and already a reality is the gesture interface technology from Minority Report. John Underkoffler was a consultant on Minority Report and his company, Oblong, already has similar interfaces in use by clients. For interaction with virtual objects, HoloLens technology uses gestures within your field of view to point and click within a virtual interface. While gestures can currently be used to interact with and move virtual objects with technology like Kinect, detection and tracking of objects synchronized to finger movements is still a few years away. Decades away is the ability to use an AR system depicted in Iron Man 2 to “create” a new element like Vibranium.

Augmented Reality - HUD Content

Augmented Reality – HUD Content

Iron Man (again), The Terminator and a slew of other films and video games over the last 20 years have shown Heads Up Displays (HUD) with AR content. Google tried to show forward thinking HUD concepts for a mass consumer device with Glass, but the conceptual vision was years ahead of the initial device’s technological capabilities. However, other companies like Daqri are using HUD technology focused on virtual training and Skully is using HUD technology for motorcycle helmets.  Automakers are also concepting ways to integrate augmented reality windshields into cars while companies like WayRay are taking a different approach with in-auto holographic devices to project AR information. The main technical challenge though is static display information within the HUD available and in market now vs. real-time object detection/recognition displayed in the HUD as shown in movies like The Terminator. Current object detection/recognition technology is still in its infancy and privacy issues around facial detection/recognition will likely affect how and when this technology makes it to market. As a result, Sarah Connors of the world can relax for now as we likely won’t see Terminator vision as depicted in the films for another decade or so.

Augmented Reality - Location-based Advertising / Virtual Information

Augmented Reality – Location-based Advertising / Virtual Information

The future of location-based virtual display information has various predictions from sci-fi/horror hidden AR messages in They Live, to a more humorous (yet potentially horrifying) vision of AR hyper advertising from Keiichi Matsuda. Both of these film narratives portray virtual information displayed all around us based on our geolocation.  Mobile geofencing and geolocation is already here, and it’s just a matter of time until next-gen GPS is available to allow for AR-based objects to be placed with precision in our (virtual) location.Though this technology is similar to how HUD real-time display information will be displayed, there are offsetting technical challenges with either approach.  Whereas automotive-based HUD’s can utilize more powerful imaging devices and processing power for object detection/recognition, personal eye wear will be subject to less processing power and have to rely on using geolocation to display virtual object or information.  It will be awhile before a wearable device can do accurate, distance-related object detection/recognition.

Black Mirror - Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality

Special Mention – Black Mirror

No list of virtual reality or augmented reality technology from movies would be complete without mentioning Black Mirror. This series is a futuristic Twilight Zone which shows a different future technology as the basis for a situational story. From The Entire History of You where eye implants record and playback everything you see to Fifteen Million Merits which utilizes gamification with AR/VR, this series shows the very realistic possibilities (and dangers) of future tech. While the eye implant technology is still conceptual for now, other episodes revolve around current tech like Social Media and how it might evolve in less than desirable ways. You will never think of your social media profile the same way again once you see “Be Right Back“.

“You take the red pill, you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.”

While cinematic concepts of both AR and VR are often dazzling, the reality of achieving these concepts is often more fantasy than reality. As noted above, there are some great advancements being made with both Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality technology. However, most people’s expectations for AR and VR technology is rooted in the cinematic concepts they’re familiar with. As a result, the biggest challenge for companies is setting expectations with what their current technology can do (the reality) versus where the technology might be in the near future (the promise).

This post originally appeared as modified OpEd for VenturBeat