Michael Abrash on the case for near-term VR over AR (and why I think the most compelling piece of VR software might be Writeroom)
Finally, there’s a wild card that could change the long-term balance between AR and VR dramatically. My thinking to date has assumed that AR will be a major platform shift that fundamentally changes the way we interact with computers, while VR won’t, except to the extent that VR-like experiences are part of the AR future. However, it’s possible that that VR will be a major platform shift all on its own; we could all end up spending our time sitting in our living rooms wearing VR headsets and haptics, while the traditional movie, TV, and videogame businesses wither. (In fact, I’d be surprised if that wasn’t the case someday, but I think it’ll be a long while before that happens.) We all know what that would imply, since we’ve all watched Star Trek – that way lies the Holodeck. If that happens, VR is more than interesting; it’s a big part of the future.
It seems clear that gamers are going to push VR forward in the near term. (And projects like the Oculus Rift are certainly game-centric, by dint of the first software available alone.) But one of the most compelling things about VR for me–the thing I think will take VR from a niche within video gaming and into a, well, larger niche within computing at large–is the notion of using VR headsets for productivity.
A decade ago, users started switching from desktops to laptops, largely because laptops were powerful enough to be a user's only machine, but also because the displays on laptops had grown large enough to suffice for all-day use. (And hey, you can always plug in another, larger screen when you're at your desk.) Five year ago, the mainstream users started adding smartphone displays to their field of view. Two years ago, tablets.
We've already decoupled our displays from our workspaces. But because the displays are physical objects, with requisite power and silicon needs, there's a limitation to how those displays are arranged in our workspaces. Sure, you can buy stands and swing-arms or DIY little pedestals for your extra screens until your desk looks like a Christmas tree, but you still have to buy all that hardware and equipment, keep it charged and connected, and tear it all down when you want to move it.
But with a nice VR headset, you can just create those displays virtually.
Want five monitors? Create five display rectangles in your virtual desktop OS, arrange them how you see fit. Maybe you prefer one giant main viewport, virtually placed about 10 feet in front of you, pushing up out of a grassy hillock like an informational gazebo, with an array of tiny widgets flittering at the edges of your peripheral vision. (If you use Mac OS X, you may already do something like this with Spaces, which has an entire “layer” to the “left” for the Dashboard; just imagine that instead of sliding the current desktop out of the way, you could just turn your head to the left to see that weather forecast or FedEx tracker.)
Or maybe you don't want any distraction. Like, none. All the finest text editors have full-screen modes these days, the better to let you get down to the business of writing or coding. But no full-screen mode can block out the world outside the bezel of your laptop screen. A full-screen text editor inside a VR productivity environment, coupled with noise-cancelling headphones, would be the most existentially distraction free writing environment possible–just your mind and your words, floating untethered as glowing glyphs over a field of infinite possibility. (Try not to write any poetry. Or the opening crawl of A New Hope.)
This works just as well for watching video–every YouTube cat projected in virtual IMAX.
Perhaps best of all–and I think this is going to happen sooner than most might think–this virtual desktop experience is going to be relatively portable. While you need a pretty powerful computer to build video-game-quality 3D experiences (at least a laptop), the horsepower to create these relatively low-polygon (if high-resolution) spaces is very nearly already available in mobile devices. I think we'll start seeing passengers wearing VR headsets on airplanes within a couple of years. Sure, they'll look a little dorky, but that's a small price to pay for being able to completely shut out the miserable reality of commercial air travel.
(We're going to have to invent a new social protocol for tapping people on the shoulder at coffee shops to steal their attention from their VR coma.)
There's one thing holding this sort of VR interaction back in the short term: display resolution. We can handle a less-sharp image in a cartoon-like 3D world; we don't want to have to squint to make out the text in a web browser window. Even if the Rift ends up shipping with a 1080p panel (split into two 960 x 1080 pixel fields–one per eye), it won't be able to create virtual desktops with any more fidelity than its native, real-pixel resolution. There may be ways to design around this using Z-plane tricks in the short term, but obviously the real solution is higher-density displays.
There's one other thing that virtual displays have over real ones: potential for less eye strain. I hesitate to even bring it up, simply because I do not yet fully understand the science , but it is my current understanding that much of the eyestrain that comes from staring at a computer screen all day isn't from the light coming from the pixels themselves–our eyes are designed to absorb light, after all–but from the fixed focal depth we must maintain throughout our work day. (A couple of feet for laptop displays; maybe a foot or two more for desktop displays.) A virtual display, even if the screen itself is just an inch away from one's cornea, could be configured in a way that the eye's ciliary muscles are actually focussed at a distance far away, approaching infinity, and are more relaxed.
 Especially since scientists are still researching exactly how focus works in the human eye).