Virtual reality and its various manifestations are no longer science fiction – and haven’t been for some time. We wonder, however, how real the virtual world can become and so we invited virtual reality expert, Professor Frank Steinicke, from the University of Hamburg, to an interview with us on the subject.
Finest Interior Award: Virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) are becoming more and more familiar, user-friendly and available to the general public. In which areas of life are these technologies going to surprise us in the foreseeable future?
Frank Steinicke: At the moment, these applications are mainly used for entertainment and games. And it was only to be expected, as gamers are the ones who generally already have appropriate graphics hardware at their disposal. But these technologies will surely find a use very soon in the fields of tourism, the property market, architecture and social media.
To what extent is modern technology going to impact on our perception of reality?
For 200,000 years, our brains have, essentially, had to deal only with a reality that human beings perceived through their senses. It has only been a few decades that we have had anything to do with digital media and, to that extent, it is conceivable that our brains have not yet learned to distinguish between the two realities. So, many users of VR technologies also experience the illusion that they perceive the virtual world as the real world and see virtual events as events that have really happened.
Will people with VR glasses soon become an everyday sight in German towns? How quickly will the change occur?
The glasses we have at the moment are much too bulky and uncomfortable for people to wear them in their everyday lives. If, however, these glasses can be reduced to the size of sunglasses, then we shall certainly see more and more of them in the next few years and, at some stage, we shall be seeing lots of people with glasses like that in our everyday life.
The glasses are currently rather unaesthetic. Are VR/AR contact lenses pure science fiction or are they soon to become a reality?
Contact lenses that can image virtual information already exist. But the quality is far from what is required to be able to present the user with any sort of complex information. On the other hand, all the big tech companies have registered patents for technologies like that and / or been awarded them. So, the era of ‘smart glasses’ is not far away.
What actually happens in our brain when we use VR?
We process the virtual stimuli – e.g. those presented in the VR glasses – together with the real-world stimuli – e.g. what we hear. As we integrate these stimuli, sometimes it is the virtual, sometimes the real-world information that we give greater weight to and then classify as real.
In an experiment you, yourself, spent 24 hours in a virtual reality. When the virtual and real worlds blur and merge, can human beings still judge what is real at all?
There have been lots of experiments in which we see, again and again, that people experience a definite sense of being present in the VR. I, too, for instance, felt cold watching the sun go down in the VR, even though the temperature in the laboratory remained constant. Nevertheless, it was clear to me the whole time that I was in a laboratory and had only to take the glasses off.
How real can the virtual world become?
It won’t be more than a few years before the visual representation in the VR has reached such high quality that the virtual world will no longer be distinguishable from the real one. That applies, at least to visual representation. When it comes to feel, smell and taste, we are still a long way away.
Frank Steinicke is Professor of Human-Computer Interaction in the Institute for Information Technology at the University of Hamburg and an expert in virtual reality. His work is about human perception and its cognitive and motor capabilities and limitations in relation to the interaction and experiences involved in computer-supported realities.
Architects need to prepare themselves, so that they continue to have a role to play in the future.
Come and visit the next Heimtextil in Frankfurt am Main, from 9 to 12 January 2018, where we shall be asking the big question of the Finest Interior Award: ‘What’s real?’
The FINEST INTERIOR AWARD was created to honour the work of architects, interior architects and interior decorators and take account of the growing demand for individual and professional contract furnishing. The communicative focal point of this year’s FINEST INTERIOR AWARD is the digitalisation of reality. What impact are virtual reality and augmented reality having on architecture, interior architecture and interior decoration? What changes do they imply for the job descriptions of these professions? And what benefits are they likely to have for consumers? The FINEST INTEROR AWARD will tackle these and other interesting questions in its guest commentaries under the motto ‘What’s real?’.
The award will be presented on the eve of Heimtextil in Frankfurt. During the fair, there will be an information featuring the winners in the foyer of Hall 4.0.