Headset free Virtual Reality on the horizon?
Imagine you’re playing a Virtual Reality game, but you’re not using a clunky headset restricted by wires. In fact, you’re not using a headset at all. You’re accessing a virtual world via direct brain stimulation, with no external hardware involved what-so-ever. Considering that consumer-level VR hardware is still relatively new, this might sound a little far-fetched. However, by combining different innovative technologies, developers can unlock some amazing capabilities. Combine AI, VR and Robotics, for instance, and you’ve got a ridiculously disruptive team that could completely kill off VR headsets. The idea of existing within a VR environment is difficult enough to comprehend for most people, but developers are already looking towards a time where virtual experiences won’t be tied down to sight, hearing or touch – they’ll happen internally, in the mind. Could this really happen, or is it just an ambitious pipedream?
It’s all in the mind. . .
Ambitious plans have ambitious planners, and there are few people who can match the ambition of Elon Musk. At a conference held in June 2016, Musk discussed the possibility of using something called ‘neural lace’ to achieve symbiosis with machines. Neural lace is a pretty name for a somewhat unsettling concept – in short, tiny mesh sensors are inserted into the brain, allowing the host to connect with a computer. Intel have already created a chip that can be implanted in the brain to control personal devices like smartphones. If that sounds cool and / or terrifying, then the University of Washington has an alternative option. Using a common neuroscientific technique called transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), researchers are pioneering a new game that involves navigating mazes on a screen without any sensory clues. The only clues given are the creation of blobs of light called phosphenes by a non-invasive magnetic coin placed next to the skull. Test subjects have successfully worked their way around the 21 virtual mazes using phosphenes to detect obstacles, proving that the brain can be integrated with technology. The team at Washington has founded an AI and robotics startup called Neubay with a view to commercialise their concept, no doubt looking for partnerships and funding. The idea of controlling tech using only the brain isn’t a new one – it’s been a long-standing theme in various sci-fi stories, and there are numerous real world case studies including instant internet access.
How will this cause disruption?
The ability to navigate virtual environments using only the brain could hail the end of VR hardware, as well as other physical tech like mobile phones. Hardware developers won’t have to be particularly worried for a while, but they should be aware of the future possibilities of brain-integrated technology, which are huge. The billion-dollar games industry will no doubt want a share in the most immersive, hardware-free gaming experience possible. Neubay may only have created a simple, 2D concept game so far, but with the financial backing of gamers and gaming companies, the types of games on offer could quickly go from Snake to Halo. This will entirely change the nature of gaming, disrupting one of the most profitable industries. Looking beyond gaming, brain-navigated virtual realities could be used as cognitive therapy for people confined to hospital beds or wheelchairs. If the acceptance of brain-integrated technologies mimics the steady adoption curve of wearables, society will have to accept the expansion of ‘cyborgs’ – humans with technology inside their bodies. However, as enthusiastic as Musk may be about neural lace, not many people are going to jump at the idea of having a piece of tech inserted into their brains. . . especially if all they can do with it is play a game. But as the University of Washington has shown, brain-tech is possible without surgery, and the capabilities of these technologies stretch far beyond navigating a virtual maze. In the future, humans could communicate via brain signals, and perhaps even exist together in shared virtual realities.
It sounds like something from a sci-fi film, but brain-tech is very much a reality that is already in use today. Teaming AI with advanced electronics to provide seamless virtual realities is, well, a no-brainer. The question is, what else can be done with it? There’s huge potential for applications within healthcare, entertainment and virtual training – but where do you draw the line? Will we all eventually live double lives, dipping in and out of reality using just our minds? Of course, consumer versions of brain-integrated tech won’t be available for years, as researchers are still in the testing stages. At the moment, the biggest opportunities here are for B2B. Companies like Neubay could partner up with HealthTech firms to create virtual realities for people who really need them. Either way, the development of VR controlled purely by the brain is nothing but bad news for hardware manufacturers. Perhaps they’ll have time to enjoy another ‘year of VR’ before they are disrupted yet again. . . or maybe not.
Will brain-integrated VR disrupt VR hardware? What other applications might there be for neural lace? How will consumers react to the rise of technological implants? Share your thoughts and opinions.