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Stone: Public must be realistic about limitations, potential of VR

By Zhao Yuan | 2016-05-30 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Robert Stone is the chair of the Interactive Multimedia Systems program under the College of Engineering and Physical Sciences at the University of Birmingham, where he is also director of the Human Interface Technologies (HIT) Team. Stone was one of the first Europeans to experience the NASA VIEW Virtual Reality system in 1987 and afterward established the first industrial VR team at the UK’s National Advanced Robotics Centre. Stone adopts a pragmatic approach to human factors research, and his work in VR and telepresence has received numerous national and international awards.


Recently, America Online, a global digital media and technology company, acquired Ryot, a 360-degree video company. One of the largest providers of Internet technologies and e-commerce services in America, AOL has made it a priority to invest in virtual reality technology for its news stories. Ryot will collaborate with the Huffington Post, another AOL subsidiary, to make VR news videos.

In fact, other media, such as the ABC, the BBC and the New York Times, have also made VR an instrument for their news reports. A CSST reporter interviewed British tech expert Robert Stone to gain a better understanding of how VR technology will impact media.


CSST: Nowadays, more and more media channels are employing VR technology in their reports. What are the psychological effects of the VR experience on people? Will this technology enhance the effects of the news? 


Stone: Virtual reality can—in the right hands, as I have found over the past 30 years—be a very powerful medium for education, training and for helping people to understand complex, dynamically changing information. However, in order for VR to be successful in these respects and to avoid any adverse psychological or physical effects on the end users, the entire system has to be designed from a human-centered perspective, exploiting information about the knowledge, skills and abilities of the target audiences right from the start and constantly throughout the project. Sadly, in most of the virtual and augmented reality, and now mixed reality, projects and technologies one sees being announced on websites, in online newsfeeds, on YouTube and elsewhere, such an approach is often very sadly lacking, and human factors practitioners, myself included, know all too well what the outcome will be, especially when such projects are accompanied—as they inevitably are—by unbelievable unfounded claims and hype.

In the 1990s and early 2000s, there was extensive talk about the future of VR and related technologies and how they would dictate the future of TV and news broadcasting specifically. Viewers would, it was claimed, be able to join war correspondents whilst reporting from the battlefield, or experience first hand the aftermath of natural disasters. Viewers might even be able to witness cases of severe humanitarian need, where appeals for global assistance could, perhaps, have a greater impact if those viewers could be placed in the middle of the suffering. This has not happened to date, although we are seeing more and more uses of 360-degree video, which, of course, is not VR, despite the ridiculous “world first” claims of so-called live “surgical VR” we have witnessed very recently. Nevertheless, I believe that this form of media will inevitably evolve into a form of broadcasting technique where viewers with “appropriate”—and I use that word cautiously and with some skepticism—headgear from the VR community will be able to experience some of what was predicted nearly two decades ago. We are also seeing an increase in the use of new remote or “telepresence” technologies, such as small Unmanned Air Vehicles, or “drones,” providing good quality aerial footage with real-time streaming of high-definition, even 360-degree video of areas where once it would have cost an enormous amount of money to deploy a helicopter and film crew. 


CSST: Will this new 360-degree experience transform the way stories are told? 


Stone: It might, but there really is no guarantee. Again, the success of this in news reporting very much depends on how well the content is designed and whether or not its presentation to the viewer in the form of an interactive 3D experience actually makes sense. Perhaps most importantly, if the technology used to view or interact with such content is based on selling over-hyped products, such as those saturating the market today, which then turn out to be neither intuitive for, nor usable by all sectors of the viewing population, then, like its 3D or “stereoscopic” television predecessors, it will fail and probably make many users feel quite ill in the process.

Indeed, 3D TV provides us with an excellent case study of a technology that comes to the fore approximately every seven years. People get excited, spend vast amounts of money purchasing 3D TVs or visiting 3D cinemas, only for many to find that the experience was less than compelling and in many cases, very disorienting, even nausea-inducing. A review we conducted for the UK’s Ministry of Defence some time ago showed that, not only was there no hard and fast evidence that stereoscopic or 3D presentation resulted in improved end user performance, there was also evidence to suggest that 56 percent of the population who are between 18 and 38 years of age have one or more problems with binocular vision and therefore could at times have difficulty seeing 3D.

Of course, VR viewing technologies are, today, evolving on a rapid scale and not a month goes by without some claim of how a new technology—be it 4D light field displays or galvanic vestibular stimulation—will eradicate the psychological and physiological side effects of VR forever and provide unparalleled experiences for all users. I am, as yet, totally unconvinced. No matter how innovative the concept, technology will not solve all of the human-centered problems associated with VR, nor those of its telepresence video counterpart. But, with a careful human-centered design approach and attention to what kind of technology is best for the end user—and, I would argue, in most cases this will not involve a head-mounted display—it is possible to alleviate many of these.

Other concerns I have with introducing technology of any sort into the way national and global news is reported relate not so much to the viewing hardware but to the design of the actual virtual content, in that for one, it’s often not done very well and also it can, like many examples of using VR for education, training or information delivery, detract from the messages that the presenters are trying to deliver. There have, in the past few years, been excellent examples of this in the UK, where news presenters—and the BBC is one of the major culprits—are seen on screen, standing in, on, behind or next to all manner of crazy 3D, virtual or augmented effects, most of which would have been far better shown in 2D, or via some other form of media. Political programmes, such as referendums or national elections are often the worst offenders when it comes to displaying incomprehensible data about voting strategies, national voting trends and statistics. It may look impressive, but presents data that are far from informative for most viewers.


CSST: What kind of content is more suitable to being conveyed via VR technology?


Stone: As with 3D TV, I’m not yet at all convinced that delivering live news or live examples of telepresence, i.e. live video feeds from drones or other unmanned systems, directly to the eyes of someone wearing some form of head-mounted display is either credible or sensible. I can see some value in making interactive graphical or VR representations of relevance to something that has previously been presented as a news item or TV feature. In that way, viewers could explore the key facets of that item or feature by exploring an informative or educational virtual environment with links and hotspots presenting more detailed video coverage. With such a solution they could build up their own “mental map” of a remote location and perhaps become more informed about an event or even a developing situation. Some of the mixed reality research we are currently conducting for the Ministry of Defence is producing demonstrations, elements of which could form the basis of such a concept. In one of our demonstrations, it was possible to view an insurgent attack on a 3D city in progress, linking TV reports and information from aerial sources and social networks to provide a dynamic 360-degree virtual news space. On a more positive note, I also believe that there is great potential in this kind of concept when it comes to educating our school children. Why not make use of technology they will all be very familiar with by using VR or mixed reality to enhance TV programs about history or nature and enabling them to take part in virtual field trips to explore the past, present and future?


Zhao Yuan is a reporter at the Chinese Social Sciences Today.