Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Business and convergent technologies 3 – moving from 2 to 3 dimensions online with virtual reality

Posted in business and convergent technologies by Timothy Platt on October 23, 2009

In a sense all of online is a virtual reality experience, where the only true measure of distance in cyberspace is bandwidth and all connectivity is topological, with set geometrical distance measures taking a more minor role when they intrude at all. The later part of that statement is particularly true where effective broadband is coming to dominate the market and become the basic standard. Bandwidth as distance does not intrude as much and geometric distance not at all. But online experience, even in multimedia form has primarily been a two dimensional virtual reality experience, except as a more specialized option.

I remember back to my first experiences with a then very early release of VRML (Virtual Reality Modeling Language or Virtual Reality Markup Language depending on your vintage) in the mid to late 1990’s. I was fascinated by the potential in this even as I felt limited by the tools and the coding protocols for representing that third dimension on a flat screen. The idea was, at least as an ideal that a visit to a VRML site would be like looking through a window at a 3-D world, rather than simply gazing at a flat screen. There were very few sites. These sites were mostly fairly crude cartoons, even if clever ones. VRML at this stage was strictly Web 1.0 with options to navigate the 3-D rendering as a passive viewer, much as a 3-D alternative to accessing and reading flat page text or viewing 2-D images.

Second Life and its kin, and the emergence of Web 2.0 in general have made this an interactive doorway into virtual worlds but most of it is still limited to that standard monitor as a window. Visitors almost always still look in from the outside, even if they can interact and participate with other visitors/avatars in virtual realities set up this way.

As I am writing about history and my own experience here I add that I also remember an early, awkward, limited, uncomfortable attempt or two to make this an experience you can climb into, with arcade style cable tethered headsets and gloves, etc that you would use from a small special platform, racecar interior simulator or whatever. First, these were very limited and specialized in function, like most any games consoles. Second, they were big and expensive. And third, they did not offer the hardware to software flexibility that permitted any real systems updates. What you first bought, you stayed with until you replaced it or did away with it and these were not systems that any individual would buy at all in the first place.

At this point I could switch to writing about the current state of the art in hardware and software to un-tether the virtual reality visitor so they can become more of a virtual reality citizen. I am, however, trying to write something that will not become too quaint too quickly for focusing on specific evolution-of-technology benchmarks in the flow of new and emerging product offerings. So I will switch gears and take a more historical-trend approach, and I will cite another technology that in its own way has made distance a ubiquitously bandwidth and topological issue – cell phones.

I do this because cell phones are further along the curve than virtual reality is, so their longer progression through the technology cycle might shed light on what will happen with virtual reality as it proceeds.

The first cell phones were somewhat large, and somewhat limited. They are called brick phones and they had about the same battery capacity as a brick. I will add that there were very few cell towers so it was impossible to actually get a connection most of the time and in most places. Think in terms of that margarine ordering refrigerator example from Business and convergent technologies 2 as posted on October 20, 2009 for a lack of connecting and supporting infrastructure. But unlike that refrigerator, cell phones offered a compellingly significant answer to a set of concerns that a significant number of people could come to see as having real priority.

The first killer app for Online when it was just early ARPANET was a messaging tool set up to help network engineers troubleshoot. But this secondary tool add-on came to absorb endless amounts of the bandwidth then available as people used it to chat and to connect. People want to and need to connect and that is the killer app and the compelling need and priority here too. So the infrastructure of cell towers and other backbone hardware has evolved and expanded and good cell connectivity is viewed as a norm and not a pleasant exception. And the quality and functionality range of cell phones now turned multi-function handhelds has increased as more and more connectivity and information sharing options have been added in, and with Bluetooth where simply holding a phone is too cumbersome or distracting. And through this process, cell phone and their more functionally comprehensive relatives have become completely mainstreamed with only the most lagging adaptors still holding out from using them.

We are still only in what will probably turn out to be early stage for cell phones et al. and especially as the basic concept of cell phone and handheld has rapidly continued to evolve. Still, this technology is a good ten years and more ahead of virtual reality and its development as an accepted standard. Comparable product and service development and marketplace mainstreaming will, however, happen for virtual reality too and with smaller, less intrusive and much more powerful hardware, supported by increasingly sophisticated software and a proliferation of places to go with it. That last point is very important here and the first two of those points plus market pressure will drive the development of more, and more involving virtual realities to connect into and through.

So far this is history with a few technology trend comments. Next posting in this series, I will set aside the cell phone analogy and delve a bit more deeply into virtual reality itself.

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  1. […] I know I have closer to 1000 words than 350. Then I call a halt to it as I did with the recent Business and convergent technologies 3 and I will continue that with a part four on virtual reality and the search for a killer […]

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