Yu Yuan’s Mission is to Improve Lives Through Virtual Reality

The IEEE Digital Senses Initiative chair discusses the possibilities and concerns of immersing ourselves in new worlds

15 December 2016

IEEE Senior Member Yu Yuan, who chairs the IEEE Digital Senses Initiative, believes so much in the benefits of virtual reality, augmented reality, and human augmentation technologies to enhance and extend people’s sensory capabilities that he’s devoting his life to helping advance them. In April he launched Senses Global Corp. in Shenzhen, China, to focus on these three areas.

Senses Global is not Yuan’s first startup. He launched two others after he left IBM Research in Beijing in 2013. As an IBM research scientist for nine years, he worked on the Internet of Things, intelligent transportation, and consumer electronics.

He’s an active IEEE volunteer and a member of the IEEE Standards Association (IEEE-SA) Standards Board. He has chaired several IEEE standards working groups including one on drones and another on 3-D printing. He is also associate editor of IEEE Consumer Electronics Magazine.

For the past 17 years Yuan has dabbled in virtual reality, and he holds several patents relevant to AR and VR technologies.

“As a strong believer in the potential of VR and AR, I kept an eye on them,” he says. “They can create new worlds where people can virtually live and play.”

What sparked your interest in VR?

I was inspired by several science-fiction movies, especially The Matrix and The Thirteenth Floor. They’re one of the reasons I got into VR in 1999.

For me, real reality, if we can call it that, can be boring. Many of us want something different and more exciting, and I believe VR is the technology that can provide everyone with a much better life experience. It can create new worlds for each of us that will be even more exciting than what we see in the movies. VR will also be a fundamental game changer for many industries, and very soon.

That’s why I’ve made it my life’s mission to advance the fields. In my previous job, I was not close enough to this mission. But in running a VR company, I’m part of an exciting industry, and an inventor and developer.

What will your startup focus on?

We are building our intellectual property portfolio in the areas of VR, AR, and human augmentation technologies. Senses Global will also serve as an integrator and broker. We help other tech companies, especially those at the startup stage, to find partners, clients, and investors.

My company also joined the IEEE-SA as an advanced corporate member—as a way to participate in standards development and build relationships with other companies. I understand the importance of collaborating with others.

What are some concerns being raised about the three technologies?

For AR, it’s protecting one’s privacy. Google Glass was a well-known but unsuccessful AR product in part because people felt their privacy was being invaded by those wearing the glasses. They especially raised concerns about their activities being recorded. These are the same issues with consumer AR helmets outfitted with smart goggles.

As for VR, because it is a completely immersive environment, the concern is similar to that expressed about online games: Children and young people could become so addicted that eventually they may not be able to distinguish between virtual life and real life. But VR could also help people who have a poor quality of life. It could allow them to live in a virtual world that makes them feel happier.

Human augmentation technologies, such as implants, exoskeletons, and prosthetics, are already helping people with disabilities live better and workers perform better. A concern here is not letting others know you have augmented your body with, for example, a brain-machine interface or an implant. Performance will be enhanced, except it won’t be with drugs, like anabolic steroids, but with technology.

Altering humans also presents ethical, political, and, should the augmentation fail and create problems, legal risks that must be considered.

What are some of the challenges you’re facing?

Fundamental challenges for AR include not only making virtual objects look real but also allowing smooth interactions between virtual objects and real things. For example, a virtual object thrown against a real wall should cover the wall appropriately as it reaches the wall and bounces back.

Developers are solving this problem with SLAM [simultaneous localization and mapping], a series of complex computations and algorithms that employ sensor data to continuously scan and learn about the environment. At the same time, a person should also be able to augment the environment with useful digital content—which depends on the person’s location in the space.

Eye-tracking technologies are also being applied to understand in which direction or at which object a person is looking. This could allow for fine-tuning in both the pictures being rendered on the head-mounted display and the interactions between the objects and the person.

The grand challenge for VR is to mimic human senses. Developers are doing fairly well with sight and hearing, but touch, smell, and taste are far from perfect. A perfect immersive virtual world won’t be created until we learn how to use non-invasive or even invasive brain-machine interface technologies to mimic all the senses perfectly.

This article appears in the December 2016 print issue as “Yu Yuan: Working to Build a Better Virtual Life.”

This article is part of our December 2016 special issue on digital senses.

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