Aug 15, 2020 - Technology

The coming age of digital reality

Illustration of a virtual reality headset.

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

The next decade of technological advances — in virtual reality and AI — is poised to move more of human life into the digital realm.

The big picture: Moments of great upheaval are often followed by major technological and social innovations. Prompted in part by the pandemic, the 2020s could see the development of a new reality that captures the best of the analogue and virtual worlds.

What's happening: In a recent report, L'Atelier, a foresight company that is part of the French banking giant BNP Paribas, mapped the development of more than 80 current technologies in an effort to predict how they'll change life by the next decade.

  • The technologies were evaluated with NASA's Technology Readiness Level method, which charts them on a scale of 1 (basic principles in the process of being tested) to 9 (already being incorporated into daily life).
  • The advances were broadly grouped into major areas like immersive reality, human enhancement and artificial intelligence.
  • The bigger challenge to prediction isn't forecasting technological change, "but understanding societal change," L'Atelier CEO John Egan says.

Egan sees the pandemic — which has made the physical environment outright dangerous — accelerating the penetration of businesses and technologies that "develop and maintain in virtual space."

  • That includes what L'Atelier classifies as "immersive technology" — virtual reality (VR) that departs physical space for one that exists entirely online, augmented reality (AR) that adds virtual overlays to the bricks-and-mortar environment, and mixed reality that allows a user to jump between the two.

Take Fortnite: The tens of millions of users who regularly play it aren't just shooting each other in between dance moves — they're taking part in a virtual space where they can socialize and even watch films and concerts.

  • By the 2030s, says Egan, "tech will facilitate a new digital infrastructure that sits on top of the physical infrastructure, one that will be unique to individuals through AR glassware and eventually through contact lens and even neural implants."

Details: Apple is said to be developing an AR headset, while Google recently bought the smart glasses company North.

  • Holoride, a spinoff of the German car company Audi, has developed in-car VR technology for passengers that matches the speed and moves of the vehicle, eliminating the motion sickness that often accompanies virtual reality.
  • Nils Wollny, Holoride's CEO, notes that non-driving passengers take more than 1.5 billion rides a day, and that technology like theirs opens up a huge potential audience to new ways of virtually experiencing games, media and more.

Yes, but: The pandemic has yet to lead to the takeoff of virtual reality that many experts expected.

  • While lockdowns may have provided the perfect environment to try VR, the tech is still trapped in what my Axios colleague Ina Fried called "the trough of disillusionment" — not good enough to meet the expectations of consumers raised watching "The Matrix."
  • Still, VR and AR wouldn't be the first technologies to initially fail to meet expectations before eventually changing the world when both the tech and the world were ultimately right for each other.

The bottom line: Both the path of technological development and the societal changes accelerated by the pandemic point toward a world where the virtual will make a desert of the real.

Go deeper: Hardware will determine virtual reality's future

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