The X(R) factor

I was in the Singularity University recently, and a quote I saw there made me do a double-take. It was by Satya Nadella, the CEO of Microsoft, where he said: “The future of computing will be driven by Quantum, AI and XR”. While I understood why he talked about AI (artificial intelligence) and quantum computing, it was his talking about XR in the same breath that threw me. XR stands for extended reality, and it includes technologies like AR (augmented reality), VR (virtual reality), and MR (mixed reality). While I had always thought of AR/VR/MR as a promising new technology, compared to blockbusters like AI, Blockchain, IoT, etc. it is usually an afterthought.

But Nadella was saying otherwise. So was Tim Cook, who said that “XR will replace all your devices by 2021”! I came across both these quotes in a presentation by Jody Medich, a futurist, a product designer, and a faculty at the Singularity University. The university is a well-known think tank set up by two tech futurists and luminaries—Ray Kurzweil and Peter Diamandis.

Nadella, Cook, Medich, Kurzweil, and Diamandis must know something I did not.

What I learnt about XR through Medich’s work and my own reading, however, totally changed my mind about this technology, and made me realise how powerful it could be. It was not just a tool to make World of Warcraft more engaging video games for kids or to show you how your car would look like in a different colour, but it was something which could make paralysed war veterans walk, or make the blind ‘see’.

Let’s look at the conventional use-cases first. AR and VR were always peripheral to our mind until Pokemon Go happened. This AR smartphone game was a global sensation and scourge and helped bring AR into the mainstream. Pokemon Go and long video gaming are the consumer manifestations of XR, but it is the enterprise applications of XR that are the real deal. The market research company Statista estimates the XR enterprise market to be worth $209 billion by 2022, powered by a shipment of 66 million AR and VR headsets (as per International Data Corporation).

Training is one big area. XR is a great tool to train employees to execute their responsibilities and prepare for unexpected situations in a safe environment. Shopping and retail is another—AR and VR can help customers view properties, try on virtual clothing and shoes, etc. so that they can potentially buy a property without setting foot there, or find the right trouser fit and look, without the tiresome trial room rituals. Entertainment is an obvious use case, with video games leading the pack. VR has the potential to change the events industry with music festivals and concerts coming to your living room! This is true of travel, too—if you do not want to go to Kenya to see a giraffe, you can see one in a safari setting in your house! XR has great potential in healthcare—the Accuvein scanner, for example, projects where valves and veins in your arm so that IV placements become more accurate and far less painful. Manufacturing plants are another fertile ground for XR, with overlays and heads-up displays displaying information, increasing both efficiency and safety.

While these are great, and I had worked with a few of these, it was not enough to do full justice Nadella’s quote. I learnt that it was the ‘merging of the digital, physical and biological’ which made this technology so powerful. Specifically, consider the brain, especially the neocortex, the part of the cerebral cortex concerned with sight and hearing in mammals. It is regarded as the most recently evolved part of the cortex. XR works on one of the most powerful parts of the brain—the primary visual cortex, the part which enables us to see. If you consider all our five senses of sight, touch, hearing, smell, and taste, perhaps the largest part of the brain is devoted to sight. It is here where XR can impact and work its magic. It can amplify our vision and literally rewire our brain.

One application of ‘rewiring our brain through XR’ has been in pain reduction. The Israeli firm VRHealth has worked on using VR to cure migraine pains, for instance.“Our brain is like a CPU—75% of that CPU goes to visuals and sound,” says the founder Eran Orr, a former Israeli Airforce pilot, who first experimented with VR to ease whiplash pain caused during flight. “When we overload our CPU with an immersive technology like VR, things like pain can get downgraded in the priority list. That’s why it’s amazing for pain management or pain distraction. Once you combine that with actual rehab, physical therapy or any other process where the pain is another element, it’s a game-changer.” The New York Times has written of Hollie Davis, a 41-year-old who owes her current full mobility to trying VR as part of her treatment for persistent, life-inhibiting pain following a motorcycle accident. She “spent 10 or 20 minutes in a dark room while a head-mounted 3-D screen transported her to a very relaxing place, taught her about the nature of pain, how oxygen travels through the body, then how to breathe, focus on her breathing, relax her body and think of nothing else.” The device engages multiple senses, essentially flooding the brain with so much input that it cannot register pain signals. When pain messages try to get through, “the brain gives a busy signal”.

VR has also been known to restore feelings in paraplegics. In a recent study, researchers worked on eight “chronic paraplegics.”, where the participants underwent extensive 12-month training using brain-machine interfaces and virtual reality technology. The VR component of the study involved immersing the participants in a virtual experience where they were tasked with using their own brains to move a virtual avatar. After the study concluded, all participants “experienced neurological improvements in somatic sensation … As a result, 50% of these patients were upgraded to an incomplete paraplegia classification”. One of the participants in the study, a 32-year-old woman, who had suffered from paralysis for 13 years, was able to move her legs without the help of a support harness!

As Medich puts it, XR can be used to provide ‘cognitive ergonomics’. While physical ergonomics amplifies manpower, cognitive ergonomics amplifies brainpower. Therefore, it can help the disabled to walk again, and the pain-ridden to transcend pain! As the big tech blockbusters like AI, Blockchain, etc. will change computing, XR will become their user interface.

And I, for one, will never look at a VR headset the same way again.



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