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Creating New Worlds with Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality

In 2017, 3M Research Specialist Chris Brown, Ph.D., started the first AR and VR technology development-focused team at 3M. He uses his expertise in Human Computer Interaction (HCI), Usability, Human Perception and Cognition, and Experimental Design to help 3M make products that are easier and more enjoyable for consumers to use.   

We sat down with Chris to get his thoughts on the new worlds Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality are making possible.  

What problems can AR/VR solve?  

One of the biggest advantages of AR and VR is that they can be used to analyze and solve problems in an immersive way, whereas in the past we were limited to looking at a computer monitor. At 3M, we’ve done a lot of work to create immersive simulations of things like airflow, for example, that allow us to see details we couldn’t have previously.   

What are the high-level steps to designing in a virtual space?  

Creating a virtual world is actually fairly simple to learn. Special software is used to build and deploy virtual tools and spaces to various hardware devices. With VR, the user has the ability to navigate freely, so the world needs to be built in a way that allows them to do so while still keeping them focused on the relevant parts.   

In AR, the physical world is the canvas upon which digital information or objects are placed. This can be simpler in terms of design because the entire world doesn’t have to be created, but it can be quite tricky in terms of getting the objects to stay where you put them. This requires more advanced tools like cameras and computer vision.  

What do we need to understand about humans to better create AR/VR products or solutions that solve real problems? 

Human brains are designed to work in a world where distance makes sense and there is no lag. In VR, distance is simulated on a flat screen that is sitting an inch from the user’s eyes. This can lead to some negative effects that we call “simulator sickness.” The technology is getting better at working around these problems, but for the time being, these human limitations need to be taken into account. Another thing to keep in mind is that humans tend to have a hard time knowing what they really want. Adding AR and VR capabilities to products might seem like a good idea, but the truth is that there needs to be a compelling reason that an advanced visualization tool would make an experience better than what’s currently available.   

What are the challenges and barriers to creating new worlds through VR? 

One of the biggest challenges when creating new VR worlds is convincing people that VR is more than just a video game. Sometimes the actual science that goes into creating some of these experiences is not easy to see. Other than that, we have the usual barriers with integrating brand new technologies, but to be honest, that’s the fun part.  

What are the opportunities for building virtual solutions to real-world problems? 

Although 3M is a hardgoods company at heart, we have made great strides into the digital space. What better way to bridge the gap between physical products and the digital world than by overlaying digital information onto the products themselves? A good example is 3M’s HUD film, which allows information to be projected onto a vehicle windshield but appears as though it is floating at different depths in front of the user. My team and I are constantly working on application ideas ready for development.   

What is needed to continue to evolve VR and AR?  

Right now, we have a chicken and the egg problem with this technology. The hardware is still struggling to gain traction because of a lack of great content, but the content creators are hesitant to invest in creating more deep apps because the hardware is not fully realized yet. Creating AR and VR apps that can be used by consumers for more than just entertainment will potentially jumpstart hardware improvements.   

Is 3M doing anything notable or different when it comes to creating AR/VR solutions? 

One way that 3M is different from a lot of other companies is that it provides a lot of optical films to the companies that develop these headsets. That technology is a big part of why these devices are even possible. As for the creation of AR and VR tools, we have a diverse group of people working on them. We have designers who do an amazing job creating wonderful apps and demos and other experiences that showcase our products. We have technical folks who are working to use AR and VR as tools to either improve internal processes or create new customer-facing products or services. And we have people in the plants who use these technologies as part of their workday.