Are you ready for the dawning virtual age?

Imagine our world without colour. Everything appearing as black and white, or shades of grey. Beauty becomes bleak, or at least limited. Breathtaking becomes monochromatic, some might even say boring. A colourless world would leave most of us feeling rather, well, blue.

We all experienced a colourless world not too long ago ¬– a colourless computing world. The arrival of graphics processing for personal computers 30 years ago banished monochrome and greyscale displays and triggered a revolution in computer graphics-enabled applications, gaming, and entertainment. This revolution continues today thanks to the tremendous advancements in computer processing power, graphics, video, and display technologies. Those advancements are fundamentally transforming personal computing – and catapulting users into an ultra-realistic realm of visual possibilities that only sci-fi writers imagined two or three decades ago.

Television and PC image quality has steadily improved to today’s incredibly detailed, vivid, and lifelike Retina, Gorilla Glass and high-resolution 4K displays. Nearly all electronic devices today – big or small, cheap or costly, stationary or portable – now feature a high quality colour display. And soon next-generation devices ranging from smart appliances to automobile entertainment systems will follow the pioneering lead of today’s smartphones and tablets.

These are wonderful achievements, but technology is a mere springboard for the human imagination. Our next dive may take us to places we have never envisioned.

Beyond the headset

Today’s popular virtual reality (VR) devices are head-worn units used mainly by gamers to experience and participate in simulated events like controlling and manipulating objects or characters using a mouse, keyboard, and voice and gesture controls.

Using these combined technologies works well, but requires a stationary position in front of a computer. Imagine, for a moment, if we removed those restrictions. Swap the headset, mouse, and keyboard for natural input methods like gesture, touch, voice. Add the sensory impact of high-fidelity surround audio. Leverage a connected array of large high-resolution displays inside a room to alter your perceived reality, and VR is transformed into a lifelike experience that begins to approach the realm of Star Trek’s Holodeck. But we are not quite there – yet.

Full immersion virtual reality

A natural next step for VR is full-immersion home entertainment.

Imagine sitting down to watch a movie or play a game with a group of friends. Instead of using a remote control to search for the disc or title on your entertainment device, your voice command tells your network to play the movie or start the game and you’re instantly a part of the scene beside your favourite character, racing a sports car, or fighting behind enemy lines.

Of course, this is not a new concept. Advertisements for today’s smart TVs routinely make these claims. However, VR technology is steadily perfecting the accuracy of the experience and the authenticity of the interaction, delivering a new kind of entertainment that strives to be indistinguishable from reality.

Tomorrow’s entertainment promises all-encompassing worlds of lifelike interaction, where the viewer becomes part of the plot, lives the characters, and alters the action. And it will seem real – and believable.

Now that is immersion and part of what’s known in the tech industry as the Surround Computing vision.

So, what’s missing?

Creating these types of experiences is a formidable challenge, and the devices powerful enough to deliver this degree of visual realism must come first. The good news is the enabling technology to make this entertainment possible exists today.

The brain of all today’s computing devices – the microprocessor – is simultaneously becoming smaller, more powerful and energy efficient. In fact, the newest category of processors – Accelerated Processing Units (APUs) – are an indispensable foundation for our visual computing future as they combine the productivity processing of CPU with the visual processing of the graphics processor. Today, this technology powers everything from PCs to game consoles, cloud servers, jet airliner cockpit displays, medical imaging devices, digital signage, and more.

However, having the building blocks does not necessarily mean that the technology will be successful.

To push forward, the industry needs a standard for hardware that will enable all software developers to get the most out of it, easily. Developers should be able to write a program and it should work on any operating system and any device fully utilising the processor for greater performance at very low power consumption.

That environment is not where we are today, but the effort is underway with more than 50 leading high tech companies and universities working together to define and embrace a royalty-free standard to address this issue, called Heterogeneous System Architecture.

The future is right in front of our eyes

There are billions of screens are all around us, and that number is only going to grow before a disruptive technology comes around and makes screens obsolete. But until then, they are an indispensable user interface.

The screen has become the common thread of our day – from the moment we get up and check the weather forecast until we go to bed reading a book or catching up on the latest scores. Perhaps we will not be able to tell the technical differences between one display and another, but the visual content of the screen and how we interact with it may have the biggest impact on how we experience the world around us going forward.

The era of Surround Computing is at our doorstep, a world enabled by smart, energy efficient technology that naturally connects us to a universe of imagination and information. Our experience of this world will be far more engaging, realistic, and lifelike than anything before. However, achieving this requires more advanced and innovative technologies, software, and entertainment content than currently exist today. If that progress continues to advance, we will be able to teleport ourselves, virtually at least, into worlds of thrilling adventures, exhilarating escapes, and unimaginable fantasies in the not so distant future.

Image source: Shutterstock

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