Virtual Reality: Part 1

When I was young my grandmother, or Mimi as us grandchildren call her, kept a pair of Victorian stereoscopes in a wicker basket full of stereographic cards beside her reading chair in the den. As a child, I was fascinated by these 3D photographs. I also had a View-Master, their contemporary equivalent. My Grade School had a book in the library that included a pair of cardboard glasses with blue and red cellophane lenses. These are used to view images called Anaglyphs, where the red lens cancels out red for the left eye, and blue is canceled for the right, creating the illusion of depth. This same effect is also achieved using polarizing lenses. It is this polarized method that is used in the glasses worn at IMAX movies. Yet another technology used in eye-wear to trick the eyes are shutter-lenses, but these only work with CRTs, not modern flat panel displays.

What Anaglyphic, Polarized and Shutter glasses have in common is that they are all used to view images, still or moving, that are on another surface, in a composited format, interpreted into 3D by the mechanics of the glasses’ lenses. Conversely, the View-Master and the Stereoscopes create their illusion of 3D with unique images for the left and right eye on media (View-Master slides and stereographic cards, respectively) held within the apparatus itself. I’m specifically interested in this latter method.

I’m considering the purchase of a pair of Stereo LCD glasses. HD resolution HMDs (Head Mounted Displays) are disappointingly out of my price range. The NVIS nVisor SX with High-Def (shown at bottom left) retails for about $28,000.00, and that’s their low cost model. That makes Virtual Research’s $16,000.00 a pair VR1280 High-Def HMD seem almost reasonable. If I resign myself to the fact that HD is out of my price range, I can pick up a pair of Video Pro 3D i-glasses with an 800x600 resolution display for about $950.00 (suggested retail is $1200.00 but they can be found for less.). The eMagin Z800s are a pair in a competitive price range, but I’ve read mixed reviews. I’m still researching, and it may be some time before I make a final buying decision.

I have been inspired to consider this purchase by my involvement in Second Life. Now that Linden Labs has begun rolling out VoIP support, users can release themselves from text chat, and communicate verbally. Adding 3D eyewear would complete the step to an immersive VR experience— being “in there” vs looking “at there”.

I have actively participated in the debate within the advertising community over the long term significance of Second Life. To understand the context of the debate, I should point out that most commercial development in Second Life is not being driven by advertising agencies. The push within the corporate world to Second Life has primarily been by PR firms. Advertising agencies view Second Life as a marketing channel. They see the relative small membership base— the claim of 7 million+ is grossly inflated by accounts set up by the merely curious who never return. No more than 20,000 to 30,000 members are ever in-world at any given time. Hence they deduce that there could not possibly be enough ROI from a Second Life build, to justify marketing to such a small audience. AdWeek magazine recently declared Second Life to be all but dead. PR firms look at this differently. They look at the free press that gets generated. Many of the first to get on board were blessed with media coverage in TIME, Newsweek, Fast Company, Business 2.0, Business Week, the Today Show, Good Morning America… and the list goes on. To a PR firm, it doesn’t matter if you convert, or frankly even engage a single user on Second Life. The ROI comes from the massive free publicity, worth exceptionally more money than the low cost of actually building a SIM. Of course, the hype-cycle for Second Life is spinning down, and something more than just having a presence is needed to be press-worthy. But this begs the question, what is Second Life, really? And if not for the PR hype, then what is it good for?

Over the years, I’ve contracted extensively for Ogilvy, who is agency of record to IBM. I became familiar with Second Life, and consequently with IBM’s efforts there, from my exposure at Ogilvy. I’ve read up on their thought leaders, the likes of Irving Wladawsky-Berger, Ian Hughes and Roo Reynolds. I believe, more than any other firm, that IBM has its head around the significance of this technology.

“After all, there is nothing real outside our perception of reality, is there?”
- Brian O’Blivion, Videodrome, 1983

Inspired by the metaverse of Neal Stephenson’s novel Snow Crash, Linden Labs set out to fulfill the vision of so many futurist of the past three decades, and build a truly immersive virtual reality universe. What Stephenson coined the metaverse.

While others look for the quick PR return, IBM has invested for the long haul, and with a US$100M 2007 commitment to metaverse development, they put their money where their mind is. Where other see only an opportunity for a cheap/short-term PR stunt, IBM sees the emergence of a new communications platform, one with the potential for long term business/social impact on par with the advent of the web itself (Lotus founder Mitchell Kapor compares it to the advent of the computer). I have personally come to refer to Second Life as a “content neutral VR platform” (and I use the phrase regularly, in the hopes it catches on). Unlike other virtual worlds, Second Life is constructed entirely from user build content. As such, it can literally be anything one wishes, limited only by the imagination and skills of the developer. IBM has been experimenting with virtual office space, where far flung team members from opposite ends of their global operation can come together for virtual meetings, incorporating VoIP to augment these experiments (Linden Labs is now rolling out VoIP as part of the Second Life interface). The potential for distance learning is obvious (no surprise educational institution such as Harvard and MIT have been early adopters). Much like the early years of the web, nobody wishes to pin-down what the greatest utility of the virtual world will be, only that it will be significant. The ability to communicate/interact through a virtual physical manifestation on oneself over great distance, using text, voice, sight, gesture and any 3-dimensional data-object within a virtual physical environment as potentially infinite as our rapidly growing server capacity and our networks’ ever expanding bandwidth will allow. Virtual worlds will in time take their place alongside the telephone, the web, email, fax machines, and other communications devices. Having recognized their significance early on, IBM will be the business worlds thought leader on the metaverse as business platform.

Because of Second Life’s game like appearance, people that do not take the time to contemplate what the big picture ramifications are, often dismiss it as a “game”, usually a MMORPG (Massively-Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game), figuring it to be a fad of the moment. Over time, the realism of Second Life’s interface will continue to improve (I primarily wish to purchase an HMD to push the level of realism beyond what can be experience on a flat 2D display). I would like to emphasize, there is nothing that guaranties Second Life’s success. Over the next year, many competitors are coming on line. When they do, they will expand the size of the pie, where Second Life currently enjoys a majority. Nothing ensures their market lead, but it is their market to lose. Whether Second Life does maintain their lead, is overtaken by competitors, or even goes out of business is not particularly relevant. The point is that the genie is out of the bottle. High population virtual worlds are here, and the lessons learned in Second Life will still apply across other VR platforms.

I am very interested in hearing anyone else’s HMD recommendations. I’m also interested in hearing of anyone else’s experience with the use of a head mounted display with Second Life.

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  • Response
    GigantiCo * that’s the big idea: Virtual Reality: Part 1 - Perceptive thoughts about the way PR firms vs Ad agencies perceive Second Life today. An interesting article (and no, I’m not just bookmarking it because it flatteringly describes me as a thought leader).

Reader Comments (5)

Very nice article. I wish I'd written it.

When you wear those glasses can you still see the world around you? If not, it's going to be a problem using the keyboard and mouse, isn't it? If so, would the old mouse/keyboard combination device called "Twiddler" be of any value, since it would let you hold the controller in your hand and not set it down, and is operated without having to look at it?
June 23, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterSuezanneC Baskerville
I use a GVD310 Head-Mounted Display for my time spent in Second Life. It was a fairly reasonably priced model. It does not have a separate display for each eye yet, but i plan to wire it as such once i get another video card. Anyways, for now it is more like just viewing a movie theater screen from the first row, but nonetheless it makes the environments seem much more realistic. Using them for an extended period of time is somewhat disorienting as well, which is noticeable when taking them off. As much as the higher resolution of a monitor is tempting, I just can't bring myself to go back after having so much fun with my goggles.
June 29, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterIsambard Demozay
Nice post. I have not got into HMDs (yet), I did buy a P5 Glove recently though, which I'm quite enjoying.

Regarding IBM's use of Second Life, I think it's useful to think of it in broader terms. Virtual worlds are interesting, and show lots of potential. Second Life is the currently the most popular (and, unfortunately, over-hyped) virtual world today, but that's not to say it's the end of the story. I find the whole concept of virtual worlds fascinating, and you'll hear myself and other IBMers talking about "3D Internet" and even "v-business" (hey, check out ) rather than just Second Life.
July 16, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterRoo Reynolds
Interesting post and comment on Longtail blog(that drew me over here).
August 2, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMark Forman
Chris - excellent article and very well written. I agree with many of your points on the evolution of virtual worlds like Second Life. I also wrote about a similar theme (as well as some new posts) on our site, you can see them at:
August 14, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterEric Brunker

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