There’s a term people use to describe the slight discomfort that you get when you look into the eyes of a robot that looks like a human. The “uncanny valley” is what they call that feeling, but whenever we hear that term, we think of the incredibly well done short movie of the same name. If you have 9 minutes, watch it. If you don’t, then we’ll sum it up by saying that in the future nearly all jobs will have been automated. Society counters this effect by giving people entertainment and making them feel good. What the people don’t realize is that even with all the fun and games, they’re still slaves.
While in the past Karl Marx referred to religion as the “opiate of the people”, what he’d probably say today is that “opioids are the opiate of the people”. Drug abuse is rampant now in the United States, and a huge social problem. This might lead to drugs being legalized and practically handed out. Everyone pays for their drugs with a “universal basic income” check that comes in the mail each month, and the majority of people spend time in virtual reality (VR) where they can enjoy any experience you can possibly conjure up in your mind. In these virtual worlds, nothing is illegal. Every deep dark fantasy you’ve ever had can be played out. This may very well be the future of our society.
Before we get all excited about mainlining some smack and diving straight into some real-life Grand Theft Auto, we first need to sort out “real VR”. This means we need to evolve VR technology so that it is almost indistinguishable from our present day reality by allowing it to interact with all 5 of our senses. The Japanese have tried to give it a go with a product called VRSense from Japanese video game publisher and developer Koei Tecmo. While it seems to be getting mixed reviews, we can attest to the fact that Google Translate’s AI algorithms are capable of producing some spectacular Engrish:
As much as we love “girls swimsuit upgrades” and “fascinating appreciation times”, we’re thinking that this thing is more of a gimmick than anything. Instead of hopping on the next plane to Tokyo, let’s take a look at some startups that are developing technology that will help us use all 5 of our senses in virtual reality.
Seeing in Virtual Reality
We can already see in virtual reality, but we’re far from being able to see with the same resolution we do in the real world. So what resolution can the human eye see at? In order to answer that question, we’d have to delve into a whole world of cryptic terminology. For now, let’s use the term “megapixels” to measure resolution similar to when you buy a camera. Your eyeball contains “photoreceptor cells” which help you see, and there are around 120 million of these cells. Let’s round things down and say that 100 megapixels would give us the same resolution as the human eye. Let’s keep this in mind when we look at our next startup, Varjo.
We don’t know when Finland based startup Varjo was founded or why their funding is undisclosed, but we do know that they came out of stealth in June of this year with the promise of a 70 megapixel display. To put that number into perspective, the popular VR headsets today like Oculus run at about 1.2 megapixels. They’ve been showing everyone who comes by their office their cool technology in anticipation of their own VR headset to be released later this year. Below is an example of how much better the Varjo resolution is (top) compared to Oculus (bottom):
One thing keeping us from adopting such high resolution is the staggering amount of data needed with some estimates claiming we would need data volumes in the 100s of gigabytes per second range. That’s where foveated rendering comes in, a technology that you can read more about in our article on Eye Tracking, Foveated Rendering, and SensoMotoric. Long story short, foveated rendering takes advantage of the fact that you only see in high resolution where your eyes focus which is about 5% of your overall vision.
Touching in Virtual Reality
We recently came across a rather (we thought) silly way for people to feel in virtual reality. The idea was that this little robot would follow you around with a little table on top and then you would touch the table in order to feel objects. This is hardly the sort of touch needed in order for us to realize some of our “fantasies” in VR. Then, we came across an interesting company called Ultrahaptics that’s using ultrasound to make touch happen with the almost $40 million they’ve raised so far. We’re not going into a ton of detail here because you can just read our comprehensive article on the topic if you’re so inclined. Long story short, Ultrahaptics uses ultrasound to create sensations with sounds, sensations like these:
While you could potentially simulate things to be touched, what about simulating things like the hot sun?
Feeling in Virtual Reality
When you’re standing there on the edge of a dessert looking across a parched landscape in VR, the fact that you can’t feel the hot sun caressing your brow is something that won’t go unnoticed. Not to mention, some of our fantasies involve a certain degree of “warmth” shall we say. That’s where a startup called Tegway comes into play. This Korean startup is a spin-out of the Korea Advanced Institute of Science in Technology located in South Korea, a country known for its excellent Korean food, metal chopsticks, and some vivacious neighbors who generally just want to be left alone. TEGway has taken in an undisclosed amount of funding to develop flexible thermoelectric modules as seen below:
Regular readers will recall our article on 8 thermoelectric startups which described the technology as “the ability to create hot and cold temperatures by using only electricity and some chips”. Maybe TEGway can make a full body suit out of ThermoReal which could work in conjunction with the Ultrahaptics technology.
Smelling in Virtual Reality
If you’ve ever fired a gun or been shot at, you probably recall the unmistakable smell of gunpowder. How cool would that be to smell the diesel from an M1 Abrams tank you’re crouched next in your VR war game mingled with the smell of gunpowder that accompanies the clank of falling shell casings? One Japanese company working on this is Vaqso, a Tokyo based startup that’s taken in $600K so far to develop a device that jets smells right into your nose and even uses a small fan to control the strength of the smell:
Unfortunately it only supports 3 smells at a time so in our example we’ll take diesel, burnt gunpowder, and the smell of fear that our enemies emit on a constant basis.
Tasting in Virtual Reality
A sense of taste is made possible by a sense of smell, so we don’t have a whole lot to add here. Maybe you’re eating food in virtual reality that is procured on-demand from a 3D printer because you’re having so much fun with your darkest fantasies that you don’t want to eat. Maybe you just receive the minimum required nutrition intravenously alongside your drug(s) of choice. Hard drugs are just some of the methods we use to keep our MBAs motivated, and that’s probably what makes the most sense in virtual worlds as well.
Hearing in Virtual Reality
We can already hear things in VR using just standard headsets, but you cannot exist in a virtual world without 3D sound which is different from basic surround sound as it needs to track the movement of your head. Founded in 2012, San Francisco startup Dysonics has taken in $421K in seed money and then an undisclosed Series A from none other than the world’s biggest chip maker, Intel (NASDAQ:INTC) to build a full 360 degree sound solution. Their platform includes RondoMotion, the world’s first wireless motion sensor for headphones, and 3D sound editing software called Rondo360. Here’s a look at all the features offered by Dysonics:
It would be great to enable this with bone conduction technology which lets you hear through the bones in your skull and means you can bypass the ears entirely. This is actually a great segue into the biggest obstacle that we face when looking to turn virtual reality into real reality.
Virtual Reality Headsets
There’s no denying that those clunky VR headsets we use today aren’t going to work if we want to emulate “real reality”. For full visual immersion we’ve floated the idea before of “smart contact lenses”. Some of our readers who work on these things for a living said this wasn’t possible, though the results appear to be still inconclusive. The only other thing we could think of was inserting some sort of needle into the back of our necks such that we can tie right into the brain stem and start feeding it stuff. If that happens, then we can digitize the entire experience along with every single sense. It would be the equivalent of being in a dream except everything would be as vivid and real as it is today. There would be some sort of “safe word type” mechanism you could use to exit. You could go into settings and adjust a series of sliders like “pain” or “depression” which default to “off” but exist so that all you sadomasochists out there can still get your rocks off.
Elon Musk says that there’s one in a million chance we’re not already in a simulation right now. This very article could be a part of that simulation. There’s no way for us to tell how many “nested simulations” deep we are, but that number may be increasing by “N + 1” very soon.
Virtual reality to me is…. the only reality. I remember the first time I tried it. I thought to myself, wow. I’m never going to be bored again. – Uncanny Valley
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