Virtual reality has come leaps and bounds over the recent decades. To a state where VR is being used on a daily basis in various professions, as well as in many eager and even casual households where it is used to create, experience and most of all to immerse oneself into whatever one does in their VR.
In this article we will look at what full dive VR is, whether it is possible now or in the near future, and also what some possible limitations of such a true-to-life immersive virtual reality.
What is full dive virtual reality?
The mother of all VR experience – full dive virtual reality, is still a dream that many of us are hoping to become a reality.
“Full dive VR” – a term coined by the Japanese light novel Sword Art Online in 2009 and further popularized by movies like Ready Player One; is a type of virtual reality experience where one fully “dives in” to the virtual world and becomes disconnected with the actual physical reality.
It would almost feel like teleportation in a virtual sense. Or as a lucid dream, but with more or less full consciousness, as with our perception of reality as we know it.
The idea itself is much older than Sword Art Online and Ready Player One of course. Sony Playstation famously used the concept with much fanfare in its “PS9” ad for the launch of the Sony Playstation 2 in 1999.
This was the same year in which The Matrix released to box office and critical acclaim and firmly placed the concept (and arguably the possibility) of a simulated reality in the public consciousness.
The ill-fated “Jonny Quest: The Real Adventures” cartoon series also provided a much closer depiction of a full dive VR experience all the way back in 1996.
So, Is full dive virtual reality possible?
The short answer: yes! it is possible…but not yet.
The long answer is of course a bit more complicated, but also a lot more interesting.
The full-body tracking and haptics approach
This approach focuses not so much on making the VR user abandon their sense of the physical reality. Rather, it focuses on replicating the user – in terms of their body movement, looks, physical features and the like as close to the real world as possible.
At the same time, this approach focuses on providing haptic feedback to the VR user through high-resolution vibration and sensory-stimulation systems that stimulate the sensations of touching or interacting with virtual objects.
To be fair, currently this is the only consumer-facing category of virtual reality hardware and software. And while differing approaches exist at the mobile centric entry-level and the accuracy centric high-end, the general principle is still based on placing the user’s movements in a virtual world without overriding the user’s sense of the physical reality.
The current state of full body tracking virtual reality
Tracking technology right now is split into two primary approaches:
- an outside-in approach where cameras or sensors are mounted around a defined space and movement is tracked within that space; and
- an inside-out approach where cameras or sensors are mounted on the VR headset and the space around the user is scanned and used as a reference for motion-tracking
Both approaches also rely on secondary and sometimes tertiary sources of tracking data in the form of controllers and optional additional trackers.
The Valve Index VR system is the prime example of a high-end outside-in VR tracking and positioning solution that relies on sensors mounted in the room (with a minimum of two), and the user being tracked at least through the headset as well as the handheld controllers.
You can also attach optional body trackers to your limbs, torso, hands or basically any other predefined body location so that the user can achieve a very close to one-to-one virtual reality tracking experience.
The professional grade Varjo VR-2 Pro, and the consumer-grade HP Reverb G2 as well as the hotly anticipated Deca Gear 1 VR Headset on the other hand are high-end inside-out tracking VR headsets with multi-camera solutions.
All this is nowhere near enough for full-dive VR tracking yet, but the technology is improving both in terms of quality as well as cost-effectiveness on an annual basis. Which bodes well at the very least for the eventual Ready Player One-esque drop-in, drop-out full dive VR of the nearer future.
How haptic feedback suits are making full dive VR more plausible
Haptic feedback is where the illusion of consumer-level VR headsets tends to completely break without relying on third party solutions. Thankfully, third party solutions do exist that offer full-body haptics for those willing to spend the necessary time as well as money for the set-up.
The most popular consumer-facing name in this category is bHaptics. bHaptics currently offers a range of haptic wearables from torso vests, to haptic VR head-cushions, through to similar attacheable haptic devices for one’s arms, feet and hands.
While bHaptics’s solutions are compelling, compare them to something like the pro-grade Teslasuit and the bHaptic’s offerings pale in comparison.
Where bHaptic’s offerings rely on vibration motors and strictly provide haptic feedback in these terms, the teslasuit uses electro-therapy based muscular stimulation and can simulate sensations of heat, shock, wind, cold in addition to vibration-based impacts.
The Teslasuit is also a full-body wearable suit. But given its price-point of over $2500 as well as its intended use-cases of training and rehabilitation, software support for the Teslasuit outside of its specialized training and medical rehabilitation applications is obviously going to be hit or miss.
So, the state of haptics is quite a bit different than that for tracking and general VR displays in the sense that we have very advanced haptic systems currently available.
However, the prices for a convincing haptics VR solution are still quite high, and the software support for all but the most mainstream of the technology is lacking.
The “Nerve-Gear” brain-computer interface approach
When we think of full-dive VR, we think of Nerve-Gear or the Matrix-style dropping-in to a virtual world and completely losing sense of the physical world till we drop out.
No matter how advanced full-body tracking gets and no matter how well the haptics and other sensory stimulations get, as long as we can also feel and sense the physical world around us, it arguably is not a true full-dive experience.
And that is why there exists the other, much moreambitious approach to virtual reality: the brain-computer interface (BCI) approach.
The viability of Non-invasive BCI for VR
In principle, brain-computer interfacing is any means by which one can control or interface with a machine directly through the power of the electrical impulse of the body.
There have been many novelty toys based on this concept. All these devices usually come with an EEG (electroencephalogram) monitor built-in to monitor brain activity and translate it into some form of movement or computer function, this is known as “non-invasive” BCI.
While work in the non-invasive BCI space far surpasses efforts in other types of BCI – there is currently even an EEG-based VR game released for the HTC Vive that replaces the head cushion with an EEG monitor. Other companies such as Emotiv provide EEG-based BCI solutions for research as well as business purposes right now.
The problem with the non-invasive BCI approach lies in that we know very little about how the human brain functions on a common basis, let alone how it changes from person to person to account for age, disease, gender, upbringing, trauma and many other factors.
Semi-invasive and invasive brain-computer interfacing
Let’s face it, the 10-year future of full dive VR is not looking so hot. Enter the other two research areas in BCI: semi-invasive and invasive Brain-computer interfacing.
Elon Musk recently demonstrated an example of a semi-invasive brain-computer interface in the form of Neuralink. A small coin-sized chip that sits in a person’s skull, with electrodes surgically implanted on the surface of the brain that would allow for the ability to read brain activity as well as to write code to dictate or modify brain activity.
Musk has said that while the initial goal is to overcome brain and spine-related injuries by providing a neural link that overrides spinal injury for example, future implementations could possibly allow a person to backup and restore one’s own memories as well as to interface with the human brain potentially the same as any other computer.
With that said, however, even Musk admitted that Neuralink’s primary goal is to research the potential of such semi-invasive approaches for furthering brain-computer interface technology.
In addition to Neuralink, another research startup called Kernel has set out to do primarily the same thing as Neuralink and actually has been researching invasive BCI for longer than Neuralink as well.
Similary, DARPA currently is funding a so-called Stentrode (a portmanteau of Stent and Electrode) project worth $60 million to develop an intracranial electrode array for recording and stimulating brain activity.
While invasive BCI will possibly never become the standard for something like full dive VR, the breakthroughs in these researches would probably go a long way in building a non-invasive Nerve Gear style BCI for eventual commercial use.
BCI most certainly promises the definitive full-dive VR experience one day, and with breakthroughs happening on almost a monthly basis in this field it is hard to pinpoint how far off we actually are but it is tantalizing to think that it may not be too far off into the future.
Other technologies that could potentially help reach the full dive VR dream
Aside from improvements to haptics, graphics, display, smell and sound. There are a number of exciting technologies and areas of scientific study being worked on today that could truly help complete the full-dive VR dream.
The foremost of these is definitely electronic skin or e-skin. E-skin refers to wearable electronics and sensors that are so flexible and lightweight that they can be added to clothing or even be integrated inside it without any noticeable difference by the user.
Xenoma currently makes a line of e-skin products primarily targeting medical applications and monitoring needs. These could easily be modified and retrofitted for full-dive VR needs where the software could keep track of all sorts of body metrics and physical activity of the user and possibly even adjust the VR scenario accordingly.
The work in neuroscience to achieve a detailed and complete mapping of the human brain via brain scans would also go a long way in helping achieve both better brain-computer interfaces as well as to help in design VR worlds that are much more immersive and in tune with what our brains perceive as real. Another essential field of study for full-dive VR is that of neuro-prosthetics.
Neuro-prosthetics technology focuses on translating the movement related signals from the brain – from the motor cortex of the brain specifically – and then relay those signals to a computer that would then be able to translate them to motion in either a robotic limb, or through electrodes implanted in the muscles in the person’s limb.
Understanding the motor cortex signals would be essential to allow a user in full-dive VR to move naturally and completely.
In a semi-conscious state of full dive, it would be paramount to override to make sure these motor cortex signals do not translate into real world motion that could inadvertently hurt the VR user or any other person around them.
Another neuro-prosthetic technology that comes to mind is cochlear implants, a type of device that uses electronic signals to enable the deaf to hear sound. It does so by tapping into the cochlear nerve.
It may be silly to think that these technologies will be reengineered into VR devices. That is a stretch to say the least. But it’s an idea. And it is possible.
Possible limitations of full dive VR
While it is fun to think that full-dive VR would be the be-all, end-all of immersive technology, it is important to note that like all technology before it, full-dive VR would not be without limitations.
- We really should not expect commercially available full-dive VR to come cheap for one. Even when it eventually becomes a reality. Full-dive VR would probably be as expensive as businesses could sell it for initially.
- Even though we talk about total immersion when it comes to full dive, it is important to note that even in total escape from the real world, we still would not be able to escape from commercial interests of companies selling these experiences.
- It should be remembered that the entire full-dive VR world would be software-based. A poorly designed, or even a well-designed but rushed VR world would no doubt be filled with hilarious and perhaps even experience breaking bugs.
- And lastly, it should be of note, that even spending too long a time in normal virtual reality is said to have adverse effects on a person’s mental faculties. True full-dive VR would probably then come with health-related caveats especially if it would be in the style of Sword Art Online where the user is essentially in a half-sleep state with no actual muscle movement for prolonged periods of time.
How long till full dive VR become a real-world reality
Will we see full dive VR devices in the coming decade? Probably not. Not to the degree we’ve come to expect anyways. In the next 20 years? Maybe.
Although it is a possibility of future technology that feels overdue at this point. But the truth is that while human imagination has enabled us to dream up what such an experience could actually provide, the technology to achieve full-dive VR still has some catching up to do.
Even when technology does catch up, which may very well be in the next 30 to a 100-years, there will be some bioethical concerns to deal with. Which is the real sticking point holding the technology back as a viable business proposition.
Whenever that finally happens though, a revolution will be upon us. One enticing enough for the world to fully dive in to.