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TED 2016: Virtual and augmented reality steal the show

The era of computer screens is ending, the TED Talks heard today, with virtual and augmented reality wowing the crowds with non-gaming applications.

5 ways you'll use virtual and augmented reality, even if you never touch a video game

Microsoft's Alex Kipman on the TED stage demonstrating Hololens, the company's augmented reality glasses. The holographic space man is visible via Hololens only to Kipman, but a camera captured that view and projected it in the auditorium. (Image courtesy of TED)

The era of computer screens is ending, the TED Conference in Vancouver heard today, as Microsoft's Alex Kipman appeared to share the stage with holographic mushrooms and a NASA scientist on Mars.

"We're like cave people in computer terms. We've barely discovered charcoal and started drawing stick figures in our caves."

Kipman was demonstrating Microsoft's Hololens, augmented reality glasses that let their wearer see and interact with holograms — one in a succession of gee-whiz moments featuring virtual and augmented reality at this year's TED.

Start-up Meta unveiled their augmented reality glasses to TED yesterday, with CEO Meron Gribetz conducting a 3D phone call and finely nudging a holographic brain around.

"The ability to move around holograms like Ironman just became real," he said.

"It feels like some version of this is going to be a really big deal," said Chris Anderson, curator of TED.

Which gadget will prevail is uncertain indeed, but evangelists for this technology see applications far beyond video games — from shoe shopping to confronting our fears.

A video feed from Alex Kipman's Hololens demonstration showed the audience what he was seeing, though the holograms did not actually join him on stage. (Bret Hartman/TED)

Virtual v. augmented

Virtual and augmented reality tend to get lumped together, with both abandoning the two-dimensional screen for something that appears to be right in front of — or around you.

The big difference is whether the images join you as holograms in your living room (augmented) or transport you to another world (virtual).

An attraction called "The VOID" at TED this year showed visitors including Harrison Ford and Steven Spielberg just how immersive virtual reality can be.

CBC Reporter Lisa Johnson tried out The VOID and other virtual and augmented reality technologies on display at the TED Conference in Vancouver this year. (Lisa Johnson)

I got to try it too, and from the moment you pull on the glasses and vibrating vest, you can't see the room or people standing next to you, unless they're in the same gear.

"If you get disoriented, reach for a wall," we were advised. "Most of the walls are real."

A portal takes us into an ancient temple. A virtual torch (that we can actually carry around, because it's a real rod) lights stone walls while you walk, solving puzzles to escape.

I get uncomfortable with heights, and at one point I could feel my stomach clench as we stood next to a virtual cliff, even though I knew I was in a room in the Vancouver Convention Centre.

On the flip side, augmented reality keeps you in this world, which is its strength, said Gribetz.

Two people wearing Meta's glasses "can make eye contact and pass each other holograms directly," he said. "This is just a whole new way of communicating between humans"

Meron Gribetz demonstrates Meta's augmented reality glasses on stage at TED, which let the wearer see and interact with a hologram. (Bret Hartman/TED)

Augmented or virtual, here's how you might use this technology.

1. Conquering fears

As you might have guessed from the example above, virtual reality is already being used to help people with phobias, by exposing them to a dose of the scary thing.

"You'll be able to — in a very safe way — experience a scary situation that feels very very real," said Ariel Garten, the Toronto-based co-founder of the meditation headband Muse, who also watches technology trends.

"Together with your therapist, you can modulate the level of fear." It's showing promise on individuals with PTSD, said Garten.

Fear of flying? Get on a virtual plane, and experience take-off, knowing you can pull the plug at any time without causing an air security nightmare.

Google's $20 Cardboard viewer is an inexpensive way to dabble in virtual reality. The user's smartphone sits behind lenses in a cardboard shell, making video created for the viewer appear 3-D. (Lisa Johnson)

2. Living a story

Virtual reality as a storytelling tool for journalism is already here, with the New York Times last year shipping Google's inexpensive cardboard viewer to subscribers to virtually experience a Syrian refugee camp on their smartphones.

Chris Milk of Vrse, who created those videos with the Times, calls virtual reality "the last medium" for storytelling.

As he puts it: instead of listening to a caveman around the campfire tell his story of hunting a mammoth, you're hunting with him, or even being the mammoth being hunted.

That makes virtual reality "an empathy machine," he told TED.

During his talk, everyone in the TED theatre had cardboard viewers and earphones to participate in what Milk called the largest collective virtual reality experience ever.

But as soon as I had my face in the cardboard, I wasn't in a theatre with a thousand people anymore. I was on a lake, with a train barreling down.

The TED attendees hold up Google Cardboard viewers with their own smartphones inserted to watch virtual reality videos created by immersive storyteller Chris Milk. (Marla Aufmuth/TED)

3. 3-D online shopping

Once augmented reality gets to a consumer level, Meta's Gribetz sees you using it to consume: online shopping in three dimensions.

"Go and touch the graphics the way your brain wants to, touch them, smack them, explode them, do whatever, that's what we showed."

When I got to try Meta's glasses, I couldn't gently nudge and turn the holograms; the demo set was an earlier generation than what was used on stage.

Moving a floating orb meant sticking my hand into it, clenching a fist, and keeping it clenched as I dragged the object around.

But still, I could turn a running shoe around, zoom in to see the stitching and pull it apart to reveal the layers of the sole.

4. Virtual visits

A warning to grandparents: using video chats like Skype and Facetime to communicate with grandkids may become old-school.

Both Meta's and Microsoft's demonstrations showed what could bluntly be called 3-D phone calls: the caller projected in front of you.

Garten sees that becoming even more immersive, with long-lost friends meeting in a virtual world, even if they're sitting in cafés in different countries.

"In the far, far future ... we can sit there and have a conversation side-by-side underneath a tree, even though we're both in different parts of a world."

Psychedelic mushrooms appeared to spring up on stage with Microsoft's Alex Kipman, via a video feed that captured holograms he was seeing through Hololens glasses. (Bret Hartman/TED)

5. Everyday computing

Microsoft and Meta both talk of holograms from their augmented reality glasses replacing computer screens for everything we do.

No more hunching over a computer screen, a bevy of screens could appear in front of you for even such mundane tasks as word processing and checking email, according to Meta.

That will take years, but Garten agrees that wearable computers are the next stage in the progression from PC on the desktop to the smartphone in the pocket, to possibly the glasses in front of our eyes.

"This is just going to be a normal part of our daily lives."


Lisa Johnson

Senior writer and editor

Lisa Johnson is a senior writer and editor at CBC News. She helped create CBC Radio's What On Earth which won the 2021CJF Award for Climate Solutions Reporting. She has reported for CBC on TV, radio and online for more than 15 years with a specialty in science, nature, and the environment. Get in touch at or through Twitter at @lisasj.