Each week we take a look with EV specialist and Innovation Origins columnist Auke Hoekstra at what caught his eye on topical issues or what he runs into where the preservation of our planet is concerned. This week Auke swaps planes for a pair of VR glasses.

Auke can’t ignore the current news either. Corona is hitting the headlines everywhere. “I have to be careful not to yell that shutting down factories in China is a good thing because it leads to cleaner air.”

Though the fact that there’s a lot less flying happening right now doesn’t make him sad whatsoever: “I don’t understand at all why we think we need to physically displace ourselves in order to gain any insights. Flying is cool the first time. But it’s actually a very unpleasant way of travelling. You get bashed aboard onto a plane as quickly as possible, there’s not much to that. And even where hotels are concerned – if you want to keep things affordable – I don’t think they’re that special.”

Plus, the mindset of a culture is not easy to fathom for a tourist, Auke thinks. “I’d like to understand how people think in China. But when I get on an aeroplane and travel around for a month, I don’t find that out. I will undoubtedly learn a lot, but I’m still a tourist. An outsider. People think by flying somewhere and experiencing things that they know how people there think.”

More possibilities

“I think you only really get to know people when you work together on a problem as students do in a lecture hall. We have a bit of an old-fashioned view when it comes to contact. This calls for a new perspective. You can e-mail, tweet and video chat now. But we’re really letting things slide there too I think. There are so many more possibilities out there.”

As an example, Auke talks about his time at KPN (a major Dutch telecom company) when part of the company moved from The Hague to Groningen in the Netherlands. In order to ensure smooth communication between the two locations, a special video conference room was set up. “That was quite special about fifteen years ago. We had a room with excellent acoustics, a fast internet connection and a screen in the background. That worked very well. So well in fact, that once during a conversation with someone, I wanted to give him a pen when his own pen stopped working. For a second, I was convinced that I could really hand him that pen.”

“Some visuals add a lot to a conversation. Even with just a crappy camera on your laptop, you can see how someone reacts to a proposition. But this has never been a priority and has actually been the same story for years. That’s a shame, because whenever you make a physical appointment, you don’t do it on a random street corner. What if you put on a pair of VR glasses and can just meet up next to each other? At the moment, the technique is still in its infancy. Yet I am convinced that in a few years time this won’t be so weird. Especially if you can walk around in such an environment and see each other’s reactions. Congresses can be held digitally from now on, so you don’t have to get on an aeroplane, fortunately.”

Strolling around at the Taj Mahal

Would this really make people less likely to catch a plane? Auke thinks so, but he also understands that walking around in VR is nowhere near the same as walking around somewhere real yourself. But the longer he elaborates on the various possibilities – measuring muscles in the face with infrared, a jacket full of sensors for showing the body in VR, 3D models for facial expressions – the more enthusiastic he becomes. “The more I think about it, the more fantastic I find it. Imagine wearing those glasses and being able to wander around the Taj Mahal at your own pace. And then I think it would be so much fun to get a tour from an Indian student – because there are a lot of them at the TU/e – who really knows the history. Isn’t that at least as cool as going there physically?”

Auke is getting really enthusiastic now: “What I’ve even dreamed of is making one of those models of Ancient Greek civilization. So, then you don’t walk around the ruins, but instead, see what it would have looked like back then. It would be really nice if you could be shown around by historical figures from that time. I see that happening in a couple of years. It’s a bit like Star Trek, Beam me up, Scotty. Why fly when you can also teleport? Because it’s kind of similar to that, isn’t it?”

According to Auke, this virtual reality not only keeps aircraft on the ground but helps students shape their own education. “In science, you need to know increasingly more about specific subjects. My cousin, for example, wants to follow a course aimed at making very specific implants, which leans towards cyborgs. But there is no training for this. He hasn’t yet started studying, but it would be great for him if he could put together a curriculum via VR. Where he takes certain subjects physically at the university, but other specialist subjects via VR.”