Next week I'll be launching my science fiction novel, Presence. It's a book that speculates on the future of virtual reality. The title comes from a term that has been (re)popularized in recent years by VR technology. As Palmer Luckey, the inventor of the Oculus Rift, said in 2014: "Presence is the magic of virtual reality. It’s the feeling that you are truly someplace else." I used that very quote to set the scene for my novel. Needless to say, I took some liberties in imagining what VR presence will be like in 2051. But what about the current state of VR presence, in 2016? Let's look and see...
Presence in VR means that when you're in a virtual environment, your brain believes it's in a real world. Perhaps Palmer Luckey called it magic because in the current era, presence is extremely difficult to attain. Even he will acknowledge that VR headsets are early in their evolution, and there's a lot of work to be done before presence is a persistent, reliable feature in VR.
Nuts & Bolts
For a start, presence is a tremendously hard technical challenge. Partly that's why I didn't go the 'hard science fiction' route and attempt to work out what the physics of presence will be in 2051. It's impossible to predict, and anyway I was more interested in exploring the implications of full presence on society. In particular, what a Facebook-like corporation (the fictional Doppel) would do with it.
Zvi Greenstein, from the microprocessor firm Nvidia, gave a presentation earlier this year outlining the technical hurdles of presence. Greenstein noted that you have to fool three human senses: vision, hearing and touch. He also mentioned a fourth sensation, "behavior." Nvidia is working on solutions, but the demo showed it's a work in progress. There's even more work to do by the VR hardware companies. Currently Oculus doesn't cover touch (although that will change shortly, when its Touch controller is finally released). So at best, the Oculus Rift only fools the brain at the vision and hearing levels. Two out of five senses is hardly full presence.
There's also a lot more to VR presence than simply replicating, for example, the sounds in a physical environment. In a May post on the Nvidia blog, Jason Paul noted that "audio can have a huge impact on presence in VR." It's worth reading his full explanation, to appreciate all the subtle, small things that can prevent presence:
Traditional VR audio provides an accurate 3D position of the sound source within a virtual environment. However, sound in the real world reflects more than just the location of the source. It’s changed by the physical environment as the waves move through walls and bounce off objects, creating echoes, reverberations or muffled sound. We expect these subtle changes in real life, so their absence in virtual environments subtracts from the realism.
As Paul noted in the same post, "true presence in VR must be convincing to all your senses." It's a huge technical challenge to account for all the subtleties of our five human senses in virtual reality.
Use Your Illusion
Even if all five senses are covered, that still may not be enough to achieve full presence. Leading presence researcher Mel Slater came up with two new terms to try and describe what's required: "Place Illusion" and "Plausibility Illusion." The paper in which he explained these concepts is too complex to get into here. But in a recent blog post, Kent Bye (from the excellent Voices of VR podcast) quoted this summary from researcher Richard Skarbez:
Place Illusion represents the degree of immersion that you feel by being transported to another place, and the Plausibility Illusion is the degree to which you feel that the overall scene matches your expectations for coherence.
If I may highlight one thing from that quote: presence isn't just immersion. You often hear the word "immersion" used in VR circles, as if it's an indicator of the quality of the experience. But presence is more than that. There's also the "plausibility" of the scene you're immersed in - has your brain been convinced that the scene is real, or is there nagging doubt?
Let's go back to 2051 for a moment. In my novel, I described a new kind of VR helmet that makes a direct connection with your brain in order to transport you to Doppel's virtual world. Once again, I make no claims to this being hard science fiction. But it seemed like a viable extrapolation, that one day there'll be a way to connect your brain to virtual reality - and achieve presence. My fictional helmet is kind of like the headjack in The Matrix, except I opted for a wireless connection to the brain.
In 2016, obviously the current crop of headsets cannot connect directly with our brains. So what is the state of the art in virtual reality hardware? Perhaps it's a full body suit. I recently came across a VR project sporting a name that any science fiction author would be proud of: Skinterface. It's a prototype "skinsuit" that allows you to literally step from the physical world into the virtual world. The designers, a group of students from London’s Royal College of Art, claim the suit is "capable of facilitating two way interactions with virtual objects or people." One example could be having a virtual meeting with your work colleague across the other side of the world. Although it's likely the porn industry will find other uses for this type of product first!
As this post hopefully showed, we're a long way from achieving full presence in virtual reality. Perhaps thirty-five years away, if my novel is any indication. But I'm confident we'll get there some day. Regardless, it's fascinating to watch bright minds like the Skinterface team, along with companies like Oculus, Nividia, Sony and others, pursue the dream of full presence. I'm curious to see who gets there first.
Image credit: Skinterface
Presence, my science fiction novel about the future of VR, is now available on Amazon.