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It is sometimes said that Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World was a more relevant warning than George Orwell’s 1984. After all, we’re more inclined to become slaves to luxury than tyranny – and furthermore to do so willingly.

Other dystopias show us becoming slaves to machinery. One of the most compelling examples is The Matrix, the first of a trilogy of films set in a future where malevolent computers have trapped humanity within a virtual world so convincing that most people believe it to be real.

Rather unbelievably, the film is now sixteen years old – and fact is beginning to catch up with fiction. Though virtual reality (VR) predates the film by decades, the technology has only now progressed to the point at which VR devices such as Oculus Rift are ready for the commercial mainstream.

If you’re already annoyed by people who seem more connected to their electronic devices than the real world, then you’d better brace yourself. Anyone wearing a VR headset will be utterly immersed in a 360 degree, three-dimensional, computer simulated environment. This could prove irritating.

However, because a conventional VR headset is a blindfold as far as the real world is concerned, wearing one means that you can’t walk around without bumping into things. Restricting VR users to their bedrooms limits their ability to annoy others.

But what if one could overlay virtual reality with real reality? Needless to say, there are folks working on that. Rachel Metz reports on one such project for MIT Technology Review:

“While many companies are working to bring virtual-reality headsets to store shelves, a 3-D sensing startup called Occipital is trying to figure out how to avoid getting hurt or, at least, surprised by elements of the real world while lost in a virtual one. Right now you can’t move around much while wearing a virtual-reality headset; in order to demo an Oculus headset this spring, for instance, you stood in a small room, barely moving your feet.

“Occipital thinks the answer lies in bringing some reality back into virtual reality, and it’s working on software that lets you see nearby objects—a person, perhaps, or a door—layered atop virtual worlds so you can avoid them, if necessary.”

One has to admire ingenuity of it all:

“Occipital’s sensor works by projecting a laser pattern onto your immediate environment. Its infrared camera picks up that pattern and uses it to measure the distance to objects in the scene so that software can rebuild those objects in three dimensions. To add bits of the real world to a virtual one, Occipital takes video captured by…camera…and measures its depth; when an object in the real world—say a trash can—comes within a preset distance, the software will basically cut out the image of the can and insert it atop the 3-D virtual scene.”

It’s early days, of course, but the ability to combine computer generated imagery with a view of the real world – a technology known as augmented reality (AR) – is of great significance. For instance, it could help partially sighted people to make out objects that they otherwise couldn’t discern. Indeed, it could allow all of us to see in the dark.

More generally, AR would allow us to access information about whatever we’re looking at and literally point the way to wherever we want to go. The potential for education and training is immense.

This is not about a distant future, but something that will happen within our lifetimes – and quite possibly within a decade: A world in which we can blend reality and simulation as we see fit and as part of everyday lived experience not just games.

The big question is whether we’ll use these new technologies to improve the real world or as an excuse for neglecting it.

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