Look out for Actual Reality

Look out for Actual Reality

Petreley's Theorem revisited: Today's 3D technology is tomorrow's Actual RealityBack in August 1997, I introduced Petreley's Theorem. In short, it states that you can ascertain the direction of the computer industry by taking a gestalt perception of developing technologies and take them to their logical conclusion. My gestalt back then pointed to a convergence of corporate and consumer devices.

Well, I have a whole new gestalt. Given the mounting evidence, I believe we're now moving toward a new technology that I will dub Actual Reality, or AR. Admittedly, the concepts behind AR are radical. So rather than describe this future up front, I would like to walk you through the reasoning that led me to this conclusion.

When you get a chance, take a look at the new 3D virtual machine from Hypercosm ( called Hypercosm 3-D. Assuming you are an electronic-commerce site, you could use Hypercosm 3-D to publish 3D representations of your products so customers can view them from any angle while shopping via their Web browser. For example, customers get to see a 3D image of a barbecue grill that they can examine from every perspective.

Interactive Pictures ( has a complementary technology called IPIX Steerable Video. In this case, you use a special camera to take a picture of your surroundings. Then you publish the picture in such a way that customers can view the scene as if they were inside a spherical photograph. They can look up at the sky, down at the ground, or even spin around to look behind them.

These technologies are great ideas, but they don't go quite far enough. If I understand the way Hypercosm 3-D works, it can be useful for e-commerce, but only if someone sits around and creates 3D wireframe models for all the products on display. As for the IPIX Steerable Video, it gives you a sense of 3D because you can look all around. But you're really looking at one big 2D image wrapped into a sphere courtesy of a fish-eye lens.

What someone needs to do is build a camera that can take a holographic picture of a 3D object, such as a barbecue grill, from several perspectives. Then the camera or a companion computer could convert the information into 3D rendering instructions. You publish these compact instructions on the Internet so people can view a beautifully rendered grill from any angle.

The camera part might be tricky, but high-quality 3D rendering is already commonplace. Today's games offer 3D worlds so convincing that the experience is compelling regardless of the game design. For example, who'd have thought you could sell a game where you track down and kill a defenceless Bambi? Yet one of the most successful games out today is Deer Hunter. And all it amounts to is a 3D hunting simulation.

If people go for Deer Hunter, surely they'd drool over a Web-based 3D simulation that lets you drive your virtual minivan to the virtual mall. The simulation could even throw in a random fender bender or two now and then to make it realistic.

When you "arrive", the Web site would need to make the experience more accessible by providing speech recognition with a natural-language interface, and natural-speech synthesis for feedback. This is not very futuristic, folks. Lernout & Hauspie Speech Products is practically ready to deliver such software. Its text-to-speech synthesis is the most realistic I've heard.

If you take this technology one more step, you enter the future I call Actual Reality. Here's where e-commerce has the potential to get really exciting. Imagine an environment that allows you to physically move through the 3D space. You can look up at the sky, down at the ground, and even spin around and look behind you. And everything you see is displayed in true 3D graphics.

This is a world in which you touch and manipulate the minivan, drive it to a full- scale representation of the mall, and use your legs and feet to navigate through the stores. In an AR environment, you get to handle and examine products. You even get to chat with AR people. Best of all, you can experience AR with your friends and family without fighting over the mouse.

Like I said, it's a radical idea. But it just might come to pass.

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