After CES I wrote about virtual reality becoming “more than a game” and discussed some of the implications of simulating our sensory inputs digitally.

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Now my friend Phil Lelyveld is reporting on the current state of VR based on the events at Digital Hollywood.  It is telling that this very practical conference, focused on media and entertainment but delving into nascent technology, had a new track devoted entirely to Virtual and Augmented Reality.

A good differentiation between the two might be to say that VR creates worlds while AR (Augmented Reality) superimposes information on the “real” world.  My interest, as noted previously, is to try to discern where reality ends and virtual or augmented begins.  It is my fervent hope and belief that these new technologies may enable us to begin to “grok” the nature of consciousness – or whatever it is that allows up to perceive and receive information.

It is interesting to consider the needs of VR creators from a hardware and software perspective.

On a rudimentary level it seems that the creative efforts run in terms of advancing the areas of graphics and video; there is technology to capture video and “stitch” it together into an entire environment, reminiscent of the “panoramas” that were in vogue not long ago.

A major hurdle in any such endeavor is barrier to entry – mainly cost and learning curves, and Phil mentions that there is a Ricoh camera that was recommended for VR shoots at under $300 and that GoPro has acquired stitching technology that would enhance the VR potential of its cameras.

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Cinematic storytelling is one target area for VR producers.  Phil writes that “David Marlett, the VR filmmaker at Cinemersia, is working on ‘MansLaughter,’ a VR film shot in four 90-degree quadrants. The four quadrants will playback simultaneously with coordinated overlapping dialog and choreographed action.”

Presumably the viewer is able to decide which of the four quadrants receive his/her attention; the question of interactivity is also important – is the viewer a passive audience or can he or she impact the narrative?  Again, presumably, the ability to actually participate in such a film created world is still a bit far off and will require even more processing power and bandwidth.

Marlett has encountered an interesting new and significant aspect of VR filmmaking – accuracy.  When the narrative “moves” in a linear fashion plot holes and details can be overlooked.  But in VR the viewer can “linger” within a scene and note anomalies.

A question for me is whether the roadmap for VR needs to follow in the steps of still graphics and video or whether we could eventually “bypass the eyes and ears” and go directly to the brain—at this point the lines between the real and virtual would truly blur.

For example, what about “real” space?  Going beyond the two main senses, one filmmaker is experimenting with a “walking around” VR experience, and eventually perhaps the notion of touch will be fully integrated using even more sophisticated interfaces.

What might this mean?  Another facet of reality will be tested; namely the notion of solidity.  Right now we are conditioned to believe in the existence of an external world beyond sight, sound, smell, and taste because we can tactilely feel it.

What happens when those “impressions” are “intercepted” technologically so that a different set of physical parameters are “beamed” into our brains?

Remember that everything that the brain calculates and that technology transmits is “information,” and an interpretive mind is required to make “sense” of it.

(This is probably the best possible “proof” of the primacy of consciousness).

Gaming still seems to be the most obvious market for VR so that participants can completely “experience” different realities and for the “real deal” prices as high as $60 for a single hit seem feasible.

In terms of the media industry much of the investment in VR is focused on entertainment.  But it seems apparent that as the hardware and software evolve to greater realism psychological and sociological applications will emerge.

For better or worse the military is already engaged.  Simulated warfare is a cost effective means of training for the real thing and allowing warriors to anticipate and experience different environments and situations will probably also propel the technology.

The final frontier, however, may just be metaphysics and philosophy.  After all, when people are already suing each other and falling in love in virtual worlds like Second Life, how long will it be before “players” are jolted deeply into the realization that they can’t really know or determine where “they” end and their “worlds” begin.

Hollywood, digital and otherwise, is built upon the notion of a suspension of disbelief and buying into a realistic experience.  But what happens when that experience becomes so compelling and believable that it rivals the world you can see, hear, feel, and touch — even after you remove the gear or leave the theatre?

And what exactly is the difference between information transmitted by the gear, and the zeroes and ones gleaned through your “normal” five senses?

To me that will truly be the grist for our Collective Evolution.

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