Bahá’í Chair Examines Future of Virtual Reality
The Bahá’í Chair for World Peace was delighted to act as co-sponsor for the recent Future of Information Alliance event, “The Future of Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality, and Storytelling” hosted by the Phillips Collection on June 6, 2017.
As Dr. Mary Ann Rankin, senior vice president and provost of the University of Maryland noted in her opening remarks, the program represented a “great example of the partnership with the Phillips Collection.” The evening’s program included three fascinating speakers: Dr. Amitabh Varshney, vice president for research at the University of Maryland; Maribel Perez Wadsworth, chief transformation officer at Gannet; and Dr. Dan Russell, Google’s director of user happiness. The speakers offered unique insights into the changing technology, developments, and applications of virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR).
The Chair was particularly interested in the ways in which the event program explored the role of VR in raising consciousness and applying strategies toward the elimination of racial prejudice and sexism. The focus of such exploration is to raise awareness about individual responsibility, and the ethical considerations required to treat all people with respect and dignity.
Amitabh Varshney began the program with an examination of the increasing applications of VR and AR. The industry is slated to grow to a staggering $2.16 trillion by 2035 and, as Varshney noted, has the potential to be revolutionary. Commenting on the ubiquity of cellphones today, he noted that technology has “managed to take the entire cyber world and shrink it down to a 6 inch screen” and that VR has the ability to take this world back up to full size, immersive content.
Citing examples of ongoing research at the University of Maryland, Varshney emphasized that VR is a medium that helps to solve problems that are important to society. One ongoing project includes a collaboration with the Prince George’s County Police Department where VR is being used in implicit bias training. This technology, as Varshney explained, is allowing individuals to be made “aware of who they are and what their inner feelings are,” and this awareness is helping to reduce the implicit bias of individual officers. As part of the Mpowering the State Initiative, UMD researchers are also producing innovative applications of AR technology in healthcare in direct collaboration with the Maryland Shock Trauma Center.
The next speaker, Maribel Perez Wadsworth, focused on both the disruption and opportunities that VR represents for traditional journalism. As Wadsworth noted, journalists have traditionally acted as watchdogs for society, as well as storytellers, advocates, and innovators. She hopes that VR will offer journalists the ability to remove filters and offer their audiences a different access point. This becomes particularly important in an era where the definition of truth and the rise of fake news has become a problem. VR enables journalists to provide a 360-degree view of a story and as Wadsworth highlighted, the ability to become active participants in democracy.
Wadsworth discussed one example of how VR is changing storytelling for journalists at USA Today was the Iowa State Fair Soapbox—a traditional stopping point during the presidential election campaign. In 2016, USA Today live-streamed a 360-degree immersive experience from the soapbox—a view, which Wadsworth noted, demonstrates the power of stripping out filters and enabling viewers to come to their own conclusions. Wadsworth concluded by looking at what comes next for journalism, including the growing use of new technology such as drones, but also noted that while the technology changes, journalism does not. Journalists are still telling stories, just in a new dimension.
Rounding out the program was Dan Russell, who urged the audience to think about immersive media not just as an experience, but as a cognitive telescope enabling us to think farther forward and to understand farther. Russell provided insights into Google’s technological developments, including Expeditions (a program that allows an entire classroom of students to share the experience of AR), Tango (a hardware and software suite to capture high-resolution point cloud geometry to measure the physical space of reality), Tilt Brush (an input device for immersive media), and the more well-known, Google Earth and Google Street View. With much audience laughter, Russell noted that Google Street View can literally drive you up the wall—that is, up the face of El Capitan’s “The Nose” rock face in Yosemite National Park in California.
Concluding his presentation, Russell also challenged the audience to think about what is real. As the ease of synthesizing imagery increases, context is everything. While technology continues to develop, Russell emphasized how important it is to understand the point of view and context in which these experiences are created. That the interpretations applied to the images, as well as the provenance of an image, enables the important distinction between what is real and what is true but not real.
The evening ended with a question and answer portion from the audience, who raised important points about the ethical frameworks being used by companies producing immersive experiences. One person asked what we lose by making it easy to see everything. Do we lose the intrinsic value of a story from a certain perspective by providing a 360-degree view?
The final question of the evening was posed by Ira Chinoy, director of the Future of Information Alliance, who asked the panel: what will it take for VR hardware to become as common as cellphones? The responses from the panel, good stories, and a couple of months.