How do you like your reality – virtual or augmented?

Web Summit hears how Nasa wants to send astronauts to Mars with an immersive world

Day two of Web Summit and a large number of the morning sessions were stuck in augmented and virtual reality (AR and VR).

Despite suspicions, augmented reality is not a term used to describe Web Summit’s opinion of what the Government should have provided it.

Nor is it the term for the infrastructure promises made to Web Summit, to be delivered by next year’s event in Lisbon, though several Portuguese attendees I spoke to had this view.

No, augmented reality is the real world, but experienced through interactive technologies and tech interfaces.

For example, a stylish little white helmet that projects a Google Glass-style overlay on to its clear visor. Gaia Dempsey of Daqri, an augmented reality company (wouldn't you love to have that on your business card?), was demonstrating her company's Smart Helmet.

A worker might use the helmet to carry out complicated repairs on, say a ship. Look at a valve or a machine part and you get instructions overlaid right on to it, viewed through the visor. It was pretty cool.

The helmet also has a rearview camera mounted in the back, handy if you need to reverse around a corner or want to evade someone who is approaching from behind. I could imagine many uses for it at the Web Summit.

Virtual reality, on the other hand, is the full monty, complete immersion into another world. In the past this could be done, in a somewhat unsatisfying way, by looking at a screen. The example that was endlessly used in the past to explain VR was the online virtual world Second Life.

At one time, every other technology story seemed to be about Second Life. You could design your own avatar! Buy your own virtual outfits to clothe him or her! Furnish your virtual pad! An entire economy developed around this, run in Second Life’s own currency, Linden dollars, exchangeable for other currencies on national exchanges.

Well, Second Life still exists, as we learned from co-founder Ebbe Altberg of Linden Lab, and last year, some $60 million worth of virtual reality goods were sold within Second Life.

Apparently, some woman has sold 300,000 virtual couture dresses for people’s avatars, at $4 a pop. They looked amazing. If I had an avatar, she would definitely be better dressed than me. Even a journalist can afford $4 couture.

Cruelty and fickleness

I couldn’t help but think that Web Summit is a microcosm of the cruelty and fickleness in the tech world, though. Here was Altberg speaking on the Content Stage – a nice enough room, but a fraction of the size of the the Centre Stage where he’d certainly have featured around 2008. Like rocking the 3Arena in your heyday, then eventually ending up in Whelan’s.

He showed us some screen shots of Second Life and some video of a new project. It was vastly superior VR to the last time I checked out Second Life. I’ve a feeling Second Life’s time may come round again, now that VR headsets like the Oculus Rift point towards a future of mind-boggling levels of total immersion.

A second life for Second Life, perhaps.

On the Centre Stage founder and chief scientist at The Augmented Traveler, Jackie Ford Morie, described how Nasa wanted to send astronauts to Mars with an immersive world to escape to when they tired of looking at the stars.

Their model VR environment has a club where astronauts can go "see" comedy acts, an art gallery and a post office. It wasn't quite the Star Trek Holodeck, but you could see how such an environment would satisfy many human needs for a more enriching environment than could be provided in a metal container on a one year-plus journey into space.

Underdressed

Back in the confines of the RDS, jostling through the crowds and assaulted by the constant background noise, I could see the attractions of a more enriching environment, too. But just then, I stumbled across an old friend I hadn’t seen in years, and his companion, who both seemed strangely . . . underdressed.

I realised after a moment what it was: they had neither summit badges nor summit wristbands. Turns out they’d just walked in with a large group of people and were wondering where to go to register (don’t panic, organisers, they’d paid for tickets already).

It was a pleasure to see them and, I admit, somehow especially satisfying to know they’d slipped in through the ever-present security cordon without even intending to.

A little summit serendipity. Now that augmented my Web Summit reality.