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Imagine that! virtual reality

By Robert Ireland | China Daily | Updated: 2019-07-13 07:00
A visitor tests a Huawei VR device at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain, Feb 28, 2019. [Photo/Xinhua]

As science advances exponentially, the choice between living in a real or simulated world may just be around the corner

It's late. The wrought iron gates of the cemetery stand just ahead, but what's on your mind right now is the rain, falling in sheets and getting home as fast as you can. Your car is back there, hung up in a ditch where you skidded off the road, braking to avoid the washout. The quickest way home-the shortcut through the cemetery, then back to the main road.

"Abandon hope all ye who enter here" flashes through your mind. You struggle up and over the cemetery gate, and trudge on, finding your way through the low lying mist. Wait is something moving just up there, among the headstones? That's nuts. Nobody would be out this late, in a storm. But that something is moving and you can see clearly, a lost face, pale and ashen, a face of terror and madness. You feel your guts get tight. This is unreal. But wait. Don't be afraid. You're in control. You're in virtual reality-where anything can happen. Let your imagination soar. You could be the hero of your own life's epic adventure.

"The only limitation is what we have bonded to our imaginations, so dinosaurs, or outer space, or aliens, anything that is under our imaginations could be realized, to certain degrees of virtual reality," says Henry YK Lau, associate dean, (Innovation) at Hong Kong University's Faculty of Engineering.

The shape of things to come

The future presents a pretty cloudy picture-a specter even. You know-things like robots taking jobs-millions and millions out of work-bitter, alienated and nothing to do? You might even think, we're living in an age of monsters: exotic diseases able to spread around the world, mass extinction and yikes! scientists say an asteroid could wipe out everything; reasons to want to escape to a place that feels safe, like virtual reality. So, we asked the experts: could we, someday, choose between life in reality or in virtual reality?

"Sure. In my book I lay out what I call the Road to the Simulation Point, which consists of stages of technology or gates that would have to be crossed. (We have reached) what I would call stage 5 (of 10), so we're half way there," says Rizwan Virk, a computer scientist, engineer, and executive director of Play Labs, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His book, The Simulation Hypothesis, published in March, is a current bestseller on Amazon.com. Virk predicts that inside a century, science will produce a simulation game, indistinguishable from reality.

What's the point? you may ask. Well, modeling Earth and stars will mean astronomical advances in science. On the other hand, we have a 2017 poll by Pew Research, showing that 72 percent of people are worried about losing their jobs to a robot.

"You have a small subset of people who have deep technical knowledge. They are going to take out businesses, they're going to take out jobs," says Udeme Ekong, doctor of Artificial Intelligence and CEO and co-founder of the content-driven social networking site Bloverse. "That will create a divide where you have people who have no purpose, no way of making a living and they are basically, given a stipend by government. So, I think in 50 years we will be in that state where the average individual spends 80 percent of his time in virtual reality."

Hard bending your mind around the changes happening all around us, right now and this is just the beginning.

"What it's gonna bring is mind-blowing, says Professor Tomas Laurenzo, assistant professor at CUHK, the Chinese University of Hong Kong. His research focuses on "Interaction Design + Human Computer Interaction, Artificial Intelligence, and Virtual Reality."

"Everything is about to change," Laurenzo says. "One of the things is this redundancy gap, in a big part, because of the liberation of attention-things that used to require-not intelligence but attention, like driving a car, they will not require that attention just liberating the attention is gonna change everything."

You almost get the picture of the Eloi-the innocents in the HG Wells sci-fi novel, The Time Machine-idle, lazy, ignorant and helpless. Can the idled innocents of the not too distant future be spared lives of idle stupidity?

Escape from reality

You may not know that the global market for computer games is "bigger than the movies," already. That market is headed for a $131.23 billion pay day next year. The global cinema market expects only $50 billion in 2020. (Source: Statista).

Newzoo, a website that tracks global gaming trends, in its annual Global Games Market Reports, cites 2.3 billion active gamers around the world in 2018. Tencent's Honor of Kings was the highest-grossing mobile game in 2017 boasting 200 million monthly active users in China alone. That's mind-boggling. The global population by May 2018 was estimated at 7.6 billion.

Now, we have so-called esports. Viewers around the world are tuning in to watch international competitions in some of the world's most popular games. This has become so big, that the International Olympic Committee is considering trying out "electronic sports" as an Olympic event at the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics. The message: Don't underestimate the influence of computer games.

Where next?

"Once, once we've moved from the current stage of augmented reality, virtual reality," says Virk. "The next stage is photorealistic fully augmented reality and mixed reality, so that you can actually create photorealistic objects.... and if you can make them appear, even without glasses throughout the room, then we get to the next stage."

Virk added that technology is already pretty good at reducing any environment to pixels on a screen, but "what we can't do yet is render those pixels in real time." It means on a virtual tour, computers aren't fast enough yet, to load graphics instantaneously. There's lag time.

Just because the technology has quite a way to go that hasn't stopped progress in mind-blowing directions. Take your favorite social media platforms, Weibo, WeChat, Facebook, Snapchat. Those are the step toward social virtual reality. In social virtual reality, people, through their generated avatars will be able to come together, sharing experiences in virtual reality. "Hey, let's meet at the Taj Mahal, and then take in a show at the Follies Bergere, in Paris!"

Companies like Alt VR's Frontrow allow subscribers to see their favorite artists in live performances-even interacting with the performers.

That market in the US was worth $10 billion last year.

"There was recently a concert in (the video game) Fortnight that had millions of people attending," observes Virk. "So it was one of the most attended concerts ever and they were all attending it inside the video game … where their avatars (their characters in the game) attended."

Maybe you've heard of Illusion VR, a device that comes with a head set, and a bodysuit that claims to provide a full body virtual interface. What's it for? You guessed it-virtual sex.

Professor Lau looks toward new communities, without borders, interaction with people all over the world, even tactile communication. "VR can be very individualistic. So I would like to, maybe make my avatar, virtually to have a more profound influence over a wide audience. But the same time, it's the communities, the virtual communities, that everybody, every individual real human may have freely to interact with either real or virtual avatars."

How far down the road are the fantastic visions? It's hard to say. Science grows and accelerates like compound interest-a discovery in one area leads to a breakthrough in another-and that speeds up developments in other areas. The advance of science is not a linear progression but a dynamic structure. The choice between living in reality or virtual reality may come sooner than we think.

The author is a senior editorial consultant at China Daily Hong Kong.

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