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Tencent's Dhawal Joshi on the Present & Future of Extended Reality

Written by - Eddie Avil 

Augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) has attracted attention from all over the globe since its rebirth back in 2013, from Indie developers through hardware manufacturers and even large multi-national corporations. Tencent, the China-based technology company with over 50,000 employees, has taken strides to support both the hardware and software aspects of these mediums. Eddie Avil recently sat down with Dhawal Joshi, Senior Product Manager AR/VR,  Tencent, to discuss his views on the work Tencent has done and what will be coming next.

Eddie Avil [EA]: Can you explain your position & role at Tencent?

Dhawal Joshi [DJ]: At Tencent, I am part of the Innovation Lab at Interactive Entertainment Group. My focus is a cross between Product and User Experience. Most of the projects that I work on have been on VR, AR with tint of AI and gamification. The focus has been how to leverage new technologies to and bring immersive experiences to the users. 

EA: When & how were you introduced to XR?

DJ:  My first interaction with VR was in early 2016 as part of an exploratory project. I had only joined Tencent in 2015 working on a game console. VR was just on a upward investment curve and a lot of attention was being focused around the world. Prior to that I was with Microsoft working on UX for Surface and Accessories. My background across UX and hardware came in handy since we were trying to explore Mobile VR at that time. Over a period of time AR experiences started to come on the scene and people started seeing opportunities and limitations in combining and separating both of these mediums. 

In my personal opinion, I believe XR is a visual computing medium rather than a piece of technology (possibly the next big visual computing medium after PC and mobile?).

EA:  What do you think have been the positives and also roadblocks to adoption?

DJ:  The biggest positive about XR is that it is highly visual and immersive. Fundamentally, you don’t have to “sell it” or “push it” to users for adoption. I have met no-one in past 4 years who has experienced XR and said ‘this is kind a boring’. 

The thing with us humans is that we make sense of the world around us in a very visual form. Audio augments it but vision is primary mode of information consumption. Fortunately, XR is also predominantly visual medium and can be leveraged to be quite immersive – just like our ‘real reality’ – so that’s the biggest positive! 

The current/next step is that everyone is trying to figure out [a] ‘killer app’ or valid use cases.

I think we can categorise adoption challenge in 3 parts:

The First one has always been the “quality to affordability” ratio. The quality of VR display, and tracking is still not affordable enough for a mainstream user. The ones that are affordable aren’t that good. 

The second is content. Industry hasn’t figured out the killer App yet – at least on the consumer side of market. Also it seems to be a catch 22 kind a situation: Content developers are waiting for a good quality system which is affordable for masses. While system developers cannot really push only the hardware without great content. 

Of course the gap is narrowing, but we are still a little bit away from that ratio.

Third part is going into nuances of VR and AR. VR is in someway Isolating in nature. Once you put it on, you are disconnected from your surroundings. So the kind of experiences that are designed for VR are about transporting users to somewhere else …kind of ‘place shifting’. 

From HCI point of view, VR is also relatively harder to step in and out requiring effort, number of steps and time. The user has to put on headset, fire up a program etc using either PC or controllers. so the transition between real world and VR is not seamless.

On the other hand, AR double downs on our immediate surroundings, amplifying the space and experiences around us. It is also relatively easy to get in and out of AR experiences. Hence, AR has lower bar of entry than VR in many ways.

EA:  What is Tencents Future Vision for Immersive Technologies and its current plans, road map for XR?

DJ:  Well, Tencent is a huge organisation so I possibly can’t speak for the whole company. 

From my perspective, these immersive technologies are going to play a huge role in years to come, not just in China but globally – specially in [the] entertainment industry. So my guess is that company is looking on different possibilities in how immersive tech could bring very different experiences to the users.

EA:  What have been the positive impact/implications of AR/VR by you at Tencent?

DJ:  AR/VR are relatively new mediums and it has been an immense learning experience for me. 

The building blocks were a little blurry when I started but once spent enough time, I could see so many parallels between AR/VR and other disciplines. For e.g. we quickly realised that most of the rules of space design, Architecture design apply in VR – since we are designing life size environments, interactions and experiences.

It also helped me grow my understanding of approaches or directions to explore and leverage a new medium. For e.g. when VR came to the scene, the early adopters were game studios, who naturally went on to make VR versions of PC or mobile games. But once you play… let’s say a game like Fruit Ninja in VR – wildly moving your arms for 10 mins – you are done! It’s physically very taxing. 

My light-hearted thesis on design for VR is that as humans our primary goal is conservation of energy. If we can push a button to do something, we would not move our arm. While designing for VR, this should be the #1 rule, how much effort are we demanding from users? And is it justified? (Of course these requirements would change for the kind of experiences -gaming, functional or something else). 

So just like any new medium, there is a LOT to be figured out for Human-AR/VR interaction. 

Another evolution as a professional is how to approach the process of design for AR/VR. Traditional design and dev processes are not efficient enough- documents (word, ppt) as a medium of communication are simply not suitable to represent the nature of experience. So, we tweaked the model towards a “simulation” based process. This opened up a lot of possibilities in terms of understanding the boundaries of AR/VR. Last year I had the opportunity to share these learnings at Georgia Tech through a series of talks on “Design for VR”.

Overall, it has been amazing to grow intellectually and professionally.

Tencent has amazing infrastructure and support system when it comes to exploration, so I guess I am quite fortunate to be part of this. 

EA: Your views on the future convergence of AI, Spatial Computing/XR & 5G?

DJ: In my view, simplest way to look at the first wave of high speed data throughput is that it is going to be amplify experiences and give them immense portability or mobility. Especially the ones which are currently tied to a location. For example, today, if I want to share the experiences that I am working on with you. It is so hard. I will have to ask you to make sure you have a good PC, a headset, then we can only view it in your office and not at the cafe we are supposed to meet. All these constraints would go away. I could simply bring in a “good enough headset” and all the processing done on cloud. 

On the B2B side of things, ultra-high-speed data throughput will have more relevance since the resource/cost offset will be substantial.

EA: What is your personal XR moonshot?

DJ: Frankly I don’t have a fixed one! It keeps changing as I experience more and more. My short-term aspiration is somehow related to leveraging XR for hyper realistic presence and interactions (humans and objects).  

So, imagine scanning our friends, relatives, or business colleagues and then juxtaposing their data on a CG skeleton in a game engine. A kind of cross between volumetric video yet not linear.

I look forward to a stage in near future where XR mediums will become as affordable as a mobile phone – leading to mainstream adoption.

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