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Virtual Reality - Samuel Greengard ***

This is an entry in a new series of pocket-sized guides which take on subsets of what would be covered by a typical book (I'm looking forward to Recycling in the same series). It covers the genuinely interesting topic of virtual reality, but the way it does so shows a degree of exaggerated expectation. The technology is simply not up to the promise yet.

Even Samuel Greengard acknowledges this when he writes 'Although virtual technologies have been around in one for or another for a few decades, the hype has mostly exceeded the reality.' Unfortunately, said hype is present through most of the book. Greengard tells us that we have experienced 'a massive wave of virtual reality, augmented reality and mixed reality'. Not in my world, we haven't. I'm not anti VR, but I think any technology that involves strapping something on your face will always be niche. The maximum the mass market is likely to put up with is the inconvenience of glasses, though even those proved too much faff for 3D TV to succeed. It's okay for the occasional visit to the cinema, but not use every day.

The book begins by spending the first chapter somewhat tediously defining virtual reality, augmented reality and mixed reality, then giving examples, only to spend much of the second chapter doing the same again. (Then, later in the book, we get yet more of lists of examples of what's to come.) The technology chapters give significantly more information, but tend to be lists of technologies with little narrative flow.

I'd also say that the history is a little off as it implies that the first commercialisation of 3D pictures was Viewmaster, but 3D was a huge commercial technology in Victorian times (much more so than virtual reality is now). One other detailed moan - in his enthusiasm to give examples that normal people use, Greengard gives the example of banking apps on phones used to scan cheques, where he claims that putting a frame around the cheque when viewing it through the app is augmented reality. But if that's the case, the frames in camera viewfinders have been augmented reality for at least 100 years - stretching the definition to make an application seem more prevalent is not attractive. 

Overall, I think the real position is summed up nicely when Greengard enthusiastically tells us that 'Gaming and entertainment are also taking on new and different forms. In 2016, for instance, a movie theater in Amsterdam became the world's first permanent VR movie cinema.' After explaining the experience he then has to throw in that 'the theater shuttered its doors in 2018.' That went well, then.

I'm not anti-VR. I'm sure it has good, interesting, specialist applications already and will eventually become mass market beyond the likes of Pokemon Go when it can be done in a less intrusive way. But, for the moment, I would suggest that a good book on virtual reality should be clear about its shortcomings and realistic about timescales - and I don't think that happens here.


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Review by Brian Clegg

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