Immersive Computing and the Experiential Age

In the past year or so I have been closely following and partially involved in the Virtual Reality space. Interesting things are happening in the VR space since about 2012, when Oculus and Palmer Lucky brought in the consumer VR revolution in the form of DK1. A short summary for those, who have not been following the scene: through a successful Kickstarter campaign, Oculus have created an affordable Head Mounted Display (HMD) that allows a person to get virtual visual stimulation that is natural (3D, stereo, responds to movement) as in the real world. Prior to the launch, such VR equipment was only available for military and industrial uses due to the high cost.

Following the VR space it is apparent that VR is not just HMDs and not merely manipulating the sight. Furthermore, I feel, as well as others, that the ecosystem is more than just VR! It seems that VR is part of a larger digital ecosystem that includes Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality, Mixed Reality, Tracking, Human-Computer Interaction, etc.

My personal interest was not just about VR but the broader ecosystem around it. For some time I didn’t know how to call this space. I wasn’t able to communicate clearly to others what I am passionate about. It bothered me… I decided to reach out to to Kent Bye, the host of Voices of VR. I consider Kent an authority about VR and his podcast as one of the best in this field. Kent suggested that the proper name for the ecosystem is Immersive Computing and I liked that.

Immersive Computing

My definition of Immersive Computing is hardware and software systems that have a role in connecting physical senses (physical space) with digital systems (virtual space) in a way that is natural for the senses. For comparison, traditional technologies for sight (such as 2D monitors and cameras) do not qualify as they are not implemented in a way that is natural for human sight and therefore they are not immersive. The connection between the spaces could be in either direction and the role could be conversion from one space to another or an algorithm that deals with one type of representation only. This definition forms a categorization process for technologies in the ecosystem. Below I have mapped various Immersive Computing technologies to the above mentioned categories.

Immersive Computing Technologies

Various types of cameras would be in the “Physical to Virtual Conversion” category for sight. Various displays and printers would be in the “Virtual to Physical” category for sight. Game engines would be in the “Mixing, Processing and Creating” category and so on.

It is worth noting that different senses are in very different stages of transformation. Sight is going through the most transformation as it is clearly the most important sense for immersiveness. Touch is second and still a lot of work needs and can be done to make it immersive. Sound has a much smaller gap between traditional technology and immersive implementations, so it is almost there already. Smell and taste are considered to have marginal impact on the immersive experience and so they are neglected and mostly dealt with in academy.

It is worth mentioning that many of the technologies shown above are not new. Keep in mind that the VR revolution is mostly about making VR available to consumers at scale. Companies try to find ways to reduce costs and make these systems simpler so that they can be manufactured and used at scale. When I am thinking of creating IP in the Immersive Computing space, I believe a lot of it will be about scaling and efficient implementations and less about completely new technologies.

Experiential Age

In one of his episodes, Kent also mentions how we’re moving from the Information Age to the Experiential Age,  and I feel this is so true. The Internet brought in a whole new level of accessibility to information. The combination of search engines, Stack Exchange and always available mobile and Internet-connected devices creates a situation, where an answer to any question is available in the palm of your hand. However, we have achieved so much in the Information Age that it is harder to keep innovating at the same rate. You could say that per Pareto principle, we have done 80% of the innovation of the Information Age and that took us 20% of the effort. The remaining innovation is much farther out of reach and the value becomes more and more marginal.

As a result we are moving to the next low-hanging fruit, the Experiential Age, where there is still plenty of things to do and bring in huge value. While the Information Age is all about making information available, processing it and storing it, the Experiential Age is about changing the way, in which we consume information and make it more natural and efficient. It is a paradigm change and it is going to be interesting.

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