What we learnt from Google, HTC and others at the Wearable Technology Show

An array of speakers took to the stage at this year’s Wearable Technology Show in London this week to discuss all things virtual, augmented and mixed reality. We round up the most important points to take away from the conference.

It is still early days for virtual, augmented and mixed reality

During his talk, Greg Ivanov, business and content development manager at Google Daydream shows a series of screenshots of websites from the 1990s, including an antiquated-looking early version of Myspace.

“This is where virtual reality (VR) is right now,” he says. “Clunky, cumbersome but kind of amazing at the same time. In five or 10 years’ time we’ll look back and it will seem like the early years of the internet do to us now.”

Ivanov points out that while the concept of “mental transportation” isn’t new – citing cinematographer Morton Heilig’s multi-sensory, theatrical Sensorama machine from the 1960s as an early example – VR, augmented reality (AR) and mixed reality (MXR) will all advance hugely over the next few years.

Daydream’s collaborations on VR content with publishers such as the Guardian’s Underworld project – which allows viewers to explore the subterranean labyrinth of London’s Victorian sewers, with the user’s controller also acting as their torch – gives us an idea of the way things are heading.

This kind of content is likely to become even more interactive and immersive as time goes on, says Tom Emrich, partner at AR incubator Super Venture. He thinks there will be less focus solely on the visual experience and much more on other senses such as hearing, smell and touch as well. As for the design of the hardware itself, Emrich says it could advance to the point where everyone will be wearing a smart contact lens instead of the bulky headsets currently in use.

The technology will have a big impact on the way we practice design

HTC Europe’s VR programme manager, Graham Breen highlights the significance of programs such as 3D modeling application MakeVR for designers, which he says are likely to “change 3D design forever”.

Compatible with HTC’s Vive headset, the program allows designers to approach product design in a completely different way by incorporating a three-dimensional multi-touch interface, which completely replaces the two-dimensional mouse and keyboard we’re all familiar with. The interface enables the user to physically reach into a three-dimensional scene to grab, move and modify models just as you would with a physical prototype, as well as being able to 3D print designs instantly.

HTC even demonstrated the technology at Mobile World Congress (MWC) in Barcelona last week, says Breen, with a designer on-site creating different designs throughout the conference that were then immediately 3D-printed for visitors to see.

MakeVR adds to the growing list of design-focused programs in this area, including Autodesk Fusion 360 which is compatible with Microsoft’s MXR HoloLens headset. The software is already being used by design-led organisations such as Volvo, architecture firm Trimble, and US-based home retailer Lowe’s, which is using it to help customers with big purchasing decisions such as kitchen refits.

It isn’t just one big game

“Don’t just use VR as a “hey, isn’t this cool’ exercise,” is Breen from HTC’s advice to designers and developers working with the technology. “Use it as a tool and a way to solve a problem,” he says.

While a large part of VR, AR and MXR has been focused on games such as the hugely popular Pokemon Go, an often overlooked aspect of these technologies is the opportunity it provides for social design – or “serious gaming”, as Breen calls it.

He highlights Oxford University’s work with midwives in Kenya as a prime example of this. HTC collaborated with the university’s Innovation unit on Life-Saving Instruction for Emergencies (LIFE), a VR distance learning platform at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in January. At the show they highlighted how the platform can be used to educate healthcare workers in developing countries such as areas of Africa – where child mortality levels are so great that currently one in 10 children do not live to see their fifth birthday – by demonstrating childbirth and childcare practices.

Designers need to think about how to make this medium more intuitive

Designers and developers have an exciting opportunity to completely reimagine the user experience (UX) element of these new platforms, according to Super Venture’s Emrich. Instead of repeating past mistakes such as when websites were first adapted to work on smartphones, UX designers ought to “rethink how this is done” with VR, AR and MXR and not simply “take the old and jam it into the new”, he says.

Emrich highlights the current method of entering a wifi password on Microsoft’s HoloLens as a good example, as users are asked to type out their password with their hand awkwardly in mid-air using a “virtual keyboard”.

“As a realist I acknowledge that we need to have familiar reference points during the early stages”, says Emrich, but he emphasises the need for designers to “challenge themselves” and ultimately ask, “after the virtual keyboard, what comes next?”

Wearable Technology Show ran from 7-8 March at London’s ExCeL centre.

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