Merging worlds: a trip across the reality-virtuality continuum

by: on 13 July 2015

The blending between the physical and virtual worlds is gaining in complexity, Ollie Williams from Imagination explores what's available on the spectrum of reality for brands

Virtual reality, augmented reality, projection mapping, the rumble of a playstation controller, gesture and motion control, increasing graphical realism.  At first these technologies may seem fairly disparate and loosely linked, but we can connect all of these if we consider Paul Milgram’s ‘Reality - Virtuality Continuum’.

The Reality - Virtuality (R-V) Continuum plots a continuous scale between the completely real and the completely virtual, with all possible variations between the two falling somewhere within the scale of ‘mixed reality’.

So as the real pushes into the virtual, with Augmented Reality technologies integrating digital content into our physical spaces, so too does the virtual scramble towards the real, becoming increasingly connected to our physical spaces and presence. Each tirelessly pushing inwards towards the mid-point apex of seamlessly integrated mixed realities.

In order to create amazing experiences it’s important to consider how best to use the technologies at hand to create the desired user experience. For example: Virtual Reality apps have proven very popular with our clients recently. VR can create incredibly immersive experiences, but as we move along the R-V continuum to within a whisker of totally virtual environments we risk leaving behind a sense of shared experience and real-world grounding.

Moving from real to virtual, experiences can shift from externalised to increasingly internalised, with virtual reality applications often blocking out all external links to the user’s locale to immerse them within an entirely new environment.

While this notion of being entirely whisked away into the virtual may often be a very desirable effect, this cannot be assumed to always be the case.

In the context of a public show or an event with many visitors, we risk users being totally immersed in one (entirely virtual) reality, at the expense of taking advantage of the user’s physical location and presence. 

So if we look at the R-V continuum, we can see that the two possible approaches towards the midpoint of mixed reality are to: make the virtual more real and to make the real more virtual.   

One simple way to move VR away from this potentially isolating immersion is to focus on multi-user experiences.

Google’s classroom based ‘Expeditions’ deliver a standard virtual reality experience, but synchronising the experience amongst multiple users in the same locale, it ties back into the shared commonality and location based communication associated with interacting in real space.

Augmented virtuality can also be seen through the physicalisation of control and feedback within virtual spaces. Everything from Kinect’s motion control, Leap Motion’s hand tracking, to integrating physical and sensory feedback and even the haptic feedback you get from a virtual button on your touchscreen phone are examples of the virtual reaching out across the R-V continuum, bringing their environments closer to the real.

On the other side of the scale, we have augmented reality, whereby virtual environments or content are overlaid and integrated into our physical space, usually through handheld devices (phones, tablets) or head-mounted displays. This includes Google Translate’s Word Lens, Layar’s geo-locative and print AR overlays, Vuforia’s marker and object tracking and Microsoft’s upcoming spatial tracking headset Hololens.

Projection mapping can also be seen as a form of spatial augmented reality. It’s particularly noteworthy as it negates the need for ‘through-screen’ viewing by displaying virtual or digital environments directly on top of physical spaces or objects. Obviously the limitations of relying on projection restrict the situations in which the technique can be used. Although ‘CastAR’ offers a unique, user-centric approach to projection based AR tech by using head-mounted projectors with retro-reflective surfaces.

This physicalising of the digital and digitising of the physical shouldn’t be seen as separately developing strands, but instead, as the logical progression of two worlds set to collide. 

When designing an experience that features both digital content and a physical presence, it is worth considering where the work is to be positioned along the R-V continuum and what are the best ways to achieve this.

This need not be through anything as pronounced as AR overlays or haptic and sensory feedback, but by simply paying due considerations to smoothing the line between your real-world and digital content.

The thick lines separating physical media, objects and spaces from virtual environments and digital content have become a somewhat antiquated notion. And yet a jarring disconnect still exists between the real and the virtual, with screen based displays often acting as the barrier separating one from the other.

The solution lies not in simply trying to tack one world onto the other, but in trying to blur the distinction between the two worlds. This can be achieved, not simply through the development and use of new technologies, but through mindfulness in their use when creating new content and experiences.

By Ollie Williams, Creative Technologist, Imagination