New reality: Why virtual worlds will be ′a very big thing for humanity′ | Science| In-depth reporting on science and technology | DW | 04.04.2016
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New reality: Why virtual worlds will be 'a very big thing for humanity'

Can you tell the difference between virtual and augmented reality? Both are being pushed as big developments in education and creative industries. Cyrill Etter of Game Science Center Berlin tells us why.

Cyrill Etter, co-founder, Game Science Center Berlin

Cyrill Etter, co-founder, Game Science Center Berlin

DW: People say this is the year virtual reality (VR) will go mainstream. Do you agree?

Cyrill Etter: It is the year it will all start, because all the [first versions of the] commercial products will be released, and it's not that virtual reality will be over after 2016. It's the start of a very big thing for humanity.

So what sort of products are we talking about?

It's mostly head-mounted displays for virtual reality and augmented reality (AR). Augmented reality still lags a little behind virtual reality. But both promise great content for consumers this year. And so that's probably why people say this is the year. I guess when television was invented, people said the same thing, and you can see how TV has developed over the years. The same will happen with VR.

We're standing next to one of the exhibits from your Game Science Center in Berlin - an augmented reality sandbox. Tell us about it.

It was originally invented by UC Davis (University of California, Davis). It's an awesome tool: you build your mountains and in real time all the height-colors and height-maps are mapped on top. It was originally created to teach children to read topological maps while they're in kindergarten, playing in the sand.

Imagine two groups of children: one grows up with an augmented reality sandbox and the other with a normal sandbox, and once they get to school and do geology, the group with the AR sandbox already knows a lot more about flat maps - they know what's high and what's low, while the other group says, "Oh, I don't get it."

The augmented reality sandbox: teaches kids about topography in Kindergarten

The augmented reality sandbox: teaches kids about topography in kindergarten

So augmented reality and virtual reality will allow us to teach differently. When things are interactive, you save them faster in your brain and you can remember them easier.

Even some of the original developers of VR, such as Jaron Lanier, have since become relative "tech skeptics." So why should we be so excited?

I think it will change nearly every industry on the planet. From architecture, where you can visualize houses that are not even built, to education, where you can teach children much better if you can put them in a [virtual] scenario - instead of just showing them Spain on a screen, for instance. It's much better if you put them [in the scene] and ask them to actively search for stuff. It uses the brain differently and you memorize things better.

And it goes on: take virtual driving schools, or in medicine, therapies against fear of heights or arachnophobia. There's no big industry that won't find advantages through virtual reality or augmented reality.

What about the processes in our brains which, with time, will be switched off the more we use such technology? We see it happening already with automation among pilots on commercial flights. Are we going to lose the faculty of imagination?

No, I don't think so. I think this is more active than just looking at a screen - you're looking around within an environment and participating in the experience, instead of just consuming it, as with normal TV.

But we're still not creating the images ourselves with VR. If I look with my mind's eye, on the other hand, I create my own images.

Yes, of course you do that when you imagine something. But compare it to gaming and other similar software: you're actively in the environment and you decide which part to look at, you decide what's most important, and that's a big [difference] to someone deciding for you what they want to show you, or what you're going to experience.

Augmented reality sandbox: Projecting a new reality with augmented and virtual technologies

Projecting a new reality with augmented and virtual technologies

So giving the authority back to the user can create more creativity as well, because there are a lot of new ways to create content now within virtual worlds. You can walk around things that you have built and look at them from every angle, and therefore you have to imagine it before [it's built] as well. It's just a new tool to visualize it and to make it real for everybody - and even "experienceable" for everybody, because now people can put the goggles on and walk around something you just created.

There is this negative view that we're all going to sit in a darkened room with virtual reality headsets on. And this can always happen with new technologies.

But, for example, there was a strong movement against books when the first ones were published, and people said, "All you do now is read stories and no longer go out to experience them yourself."

...Ah, and we have lost oral traditions of storytelling! Many stories are lost forever. Shouldn't we worry about that?

Well, the good thing is that if you write them down, they have a bigger chance of survival over time! I hope the same will happen with virtual reality. In the future, the content we start creating now will always be available and there's no forgetting it.

It's not yet possible to imagine everything it will change. But it will have a major impact in all areas, because it's inspiring and immersive. You feel the emotions of your experiences and this changes your brain faster and changes you, yourself.

Cyrill Etter is a co-founder of Game Science Center, a "small interactive Future Museum" run by a team of four game developers in Berlin. Their museum looks to the future, rather than to the past. He studied game design and 3D art and now designs and build the museum's exhibits. At CeBIT 2016, Etter presented the kinetic sandbox.

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