The Future of Immersive Environments: Virtual Home Design, “Backcasting” the Future and a Look at How VR/AR Get Social

At the Gigaom Change conference in Austin, Texas, on September 21-23, 2016, Dr. Jacquelyn Ford Morie (CEO of All These Worlds), Melissa Morman (Experience Officer at BDX), Liam Quinn (CTO of Dell), and Doreen Lorenzo (Director of UT Austin’s Center for Integrated Design) talked about empathetic design in virtual space and the future of augmented reality.

The future is already here, but there is much more to come in terms of more fully immersive environments. Virtual and augmented reality (VR/AR) will proliferate in digital spaces, taking us from a two-dimensional interface to three-dimensional virtual spaces. But once these virtual and augmented environments are ubiquitous, what will we do, how will we react and what new things will we learn?

One of the areas where we’ll see some of the biggest changes is the home.

Melissa Morman, Client Experience Officer at BDX, is looking at ways homebuilders can adopt and deliver more digital experiences for their customers. Mormon said she is scouting new technologies for the homebuilding industry by asking questions like, “How do you attract customers digitally?”

Currently, prospective homeowners are given floorplans to help them evaluate (and visualize) a new home. But when the home isn’t built or significant changes are being made, floor plans can’t do the job. Smart builders understand this and are looking at ways of using virtual and augmented reality tools to help clients see the possibilities.

Donning an Oculus Rift headset, customers are digitally immersed into the virtual home and are able to make adjustments to colors, materials and even the physical configurations of the rooms. Need to make a hallway wider for wheelchair access? Want to see what your countertop looks like with another color of granite? All of these changes can be visualized in great detail.

Once inside these immersive environments, how might we react though? What will our emotional responses be and how can those be used in creative ways?

Dr. Jacqueline Ford Morie said that “VR let’s you experience walking a thousand miles in someone else’s shoes. It’s powerful as a tool for empathy.” She cited a project called “Hunger in LA” which recasts the participant in a reconstructed scene of a real-life man who has collapsed in line at a food bank. This project was ground-breaking as a journalistic approach to creating empathy and understanding.

The panel moderator and director of the UT Austin Center for Integrated Design, Doreen Lorenzo, agreed that there is a huge opportunity for designers to use VR and AR to “step inside” the world of the user and really understand what they need — whether you’re designing for someone with disabilities or understanding the specific needs of a group. Morie agreed, saying, ”We’re starting to use a lot of VR for health reasons so it can be life-changing. That’s coming.”

But this is all a single-person experience. The perception of VR is that it’s anti-social. Can we expect to see social, virtual experiences?

Morie mentioned a project called Placeholder as a great example of some of the earliest social VR work ever done (the project is led by Computers as Theater author and researcher, Brenda Laurel). Filling the role of different spirit animals, you and a group of your friends can talk to one another and leave each other messages in the larger scope of the game. There are also opportunities to have richer, more immersive experiences — diving under the water as fish or soaring in the clouds as a bird. “VR is social, not anti-social,” she said.

If VR is temporary immersive experiences, then AR is always with us. We can imagine this as constantly accessible informational overlays. Imagine a mechanic working on a part with a virtual manual right in front of them. But further in the future, AR has the potential to go beyond simple overlays. In a world that merges AR and VR, they’ll create a mixed reality (MR) that is seamless and fluid.

Quinn said they were already starting to see aspects of this vision with Dell’s Smart Desk for creative professionals. Dell is developing business applications for augmented reality that will allow IT departments do things like remote technical support with augmented overlays. They’re also working with automotive and airline partners to create mixed reality environments for their customers, creating ever-richer experiences for engage.

By Royal Frasier, Gryphon Agency for Gigaom Change2016