Allen Ernst, US Air Force, on Virtual Reality

Blog Posts ,Virtual Reality
January 8, 2016

It’s 2016, the latest year to be dubbed the year of virtual reality. GearVR flew off the virtual shelves as the first specialized VR device, and Cardboard has made its way into millions of homes. Desktop and console virtual reality is on its way – and the industry is ready!

Welcome to Fresh Perspective Friday, a new blog series I’m testing out where I show virtual reality to people outside of the VR / tech industry and discover their feelings on the technology. For the inaugural FPF, I interviewed Allen Ernst, a close friend of mine and student pilot in the US Air Force.

First things first: What does a student pilot in the US Air Force do?

I spend about 40-60 hours per week training, and I’ll usually fly between three and five sorties during that time.  I’ll also use a flight simulator in order to practice emergency procedures and routine skills safely and cheaply.  The rest of the time I spend attending briefings and classes or studying in the flight room.

The first exposure that Allen had to the growing immersive computing industry was an article in Wired magazine outlining the social and technical implications of the Oculus Rift. During a visit to San Francisco back in April, I gave Allen a look at the DK 2 and a few Google Cardboard applications with Cardboard and Homido.

Out of the three, [the DK 2] was most like what I had grown up imagining VR to be, that is, an immersive 3d visual experience.  I can’t wait to experience other virtual senses. It was as awesome as I expected.  It was a Minecraft roller coaster demo, and it was smooth and immersive enough to almost give me vertigo, especially as I looked up at the ground from a loop that felt about a mile high – which is a good thing!  I can’t wait to be able to fly myself through a forest or canyon on a virtual podracer!

How has your initial view on the technology changed since the first time you were exposed to it?

I’ve had a mild interest in VR for several years, but really knew nothing about the subject until recently; it was just an idea that I thought was cool, and experiencing VR was a “someday maybe” thing for me.

What I really want to focus on with the Fresh Perspective series is the potential that people outside the industry see. It’s well-known that the US government has been using immersive computing simulations for decades, so it wasn’t a surprise to hear about some of the ways the improvements in virtual reality tech could change the way things were being done in the armed forces.

For the military, augmented reality is already here.  Heads-up displays in cockpits, and even on helmet visors, overlay markers and information on targets and landscapes, helping pilots attain peak situational awareness.

I see additional possibilities in training environments, such as in my flight simulator training, but I think VR still has a long way to go in terms of realism.  The simulator I train in consists of a functioning cockpit identical to the one in the real airplane, with a projected image of the outside environment on a 270-degree wraparound screen.  With such a wide field of view, you sometimes almost feel like you’re actually flying.  One problem we face, though, is the lack of depth perception, which is especially important for landing and formation flying.  However, the value of having real buttons and switches to work outweighs the benefit from replacing the whole setup with a VR headset.  The ideal setup, and the real challenge, would be something that allowed us to see and operate the real cockpit in front of us but was still capable of immersing us in a 3D outside environment.

When you think of VR 1, 5, and 10 years out, what comes to mind?

One year out, I think VR will still be pretty obscure.  It’s just not something anyone talks about outside the industry, apart from the scarce advertisements for VR headsets.  Right now the most exciting use is 360 video.  With a 3D version of that, headsets would start to become worth the money.  Maybe in 5 years, enough VR content will be on the market that demand for headsets will start going up.  If that happens, 10 years from now I think we’ll be well on our way to a culture that has assimilated VR, including sleek headsets that lots of people will use to browse content, watch movies and videos, play games, and socialize, like the way we use smartphones now.

Allen went on to discuss how he saw various obstacles to overcome for the wide-scale adoption of VR in the Air Force. While he mentioned a lot of potential use cases, the approval, budget, and bureaucratic processes in the US government came up as an inhibitor to quick adoption of the new hardware.

I think in order for VR to be taken more seriously by Congress and the top brass, it needs to attain a higher level of realism, especially if it’s going to be used for training.  For example, the way foot soldiers train today is in town mockups in the desert with real heat and sweat and actors playing civilians and insurgents.  It’s hard to replace that with a headset.  I think VR can more immediately be used for technical training, for example, helping mechanics see and interact with virtual systems in three dimensions.

Of course, one of the greatest things about technology is the way it can be personal. Allen expressed his own interest and hopes for the virtual and augmented reality industry.

I’m not the kind of person who worries about the downsides of new technologies unless they’re specifically designed to hurt people. I’m hoping to be able to see and interact with other people as if I were in the room with them. Like Skype, except with VR.

Allen went on to talk about some of the limitations of current HMDs:

My friend would have this big clunky headset on and I wouldn’t even be able to see her eyes.  Maybe ocular implants that project images onto the retina?  Or even direct neural stimulation?”

From what we’ve started to see with companies like AltSpace demonstrating facial expression replication in VR, we may not be as far off as we think in creating a workable solution to the HMD-face. While we’re probably several decades out from a Matrix-style “jacked in” level of immersion, it’s been impressive to see the growth of the Rift between generations of the developer kits to CV1 – and with 2016 bringing even more headsets to market, the monumental growth will hopefully continue over the next generations.

Got someone you’d like to recommend with a Fresh Perspective on Virtual & Augmented Reality? Follow & mention it on Twitter @MissLiviRose! 


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