The promise of virtual reality, since the idea first broke ground years ago, remains one shrouded in anticipation. Seen as a method of inducing another state of reality that could previously only happen with the use of hard drugs, VR to many is the safe, preferred medium in which to experience escapism. Born from humble beginnings, the notion of strapping on a headset and transporting oneself to essentially anywhere you desire is a notion that has both intrigued and mystified. While VR has murky beginnings in the military, attempts to carry forth such technology to the mainstream consumer market seemingly hid behind closed doors and played second fiddle through much of its history to the proliferation of the internet. The virtual world, for the moment at least, would have to wait.
Touted as the Father of Virtual Reality, filmmaker Morton Heilig in 1957 created and later patented what many believe to be the first true VR system called the Sensorama. Using 3D motion picture, stereo sound, seat vibrations, scent and flowing wind, the revolutionary machine did well to fabricate brain-bending illusions. While several others following suit, the industry eventually fell dormant for quite some time before a laudable push at the onset of the ‘90s. Arguably the single biggest breakthrough since the Sensorama came at the hands of head-mounted display designer Lucky Palmer and his Oculus Rift. With the announcement that Facebook had purchased Oculus in 2014 for $2 billion USD, tech companies, gaming groups and movie studios began once again to reimagine the future, attempting to revolutionize how the masses consume and experience everyday entertainment. Add the introduction of such devices as the HTC Vive, Samsung Galaxy VR and PlayStation VR, and 2016 can be seen as the year that virtual reality finally became mainstream.
What is Virtual Reality?
The definition of virtual reality comes, naturally, from the definitions for both ‘virtual’ and ‘reality’. The definition of ‘virtual’ is near and reality is what we experience as human beings. So the term ‘virtual reality’ basically means ‘near-reality’. This could, of course, mean anything but it usually refers to a specific type of reality emulation.
We know the world through our senses and perception systems. In school we all learned that we have five senses: taste, touch, smell, sight and hearing. These are however only our most obvious sense organs. The truth is that humans have many more senses than this, such as a sense of balance for example. These other sensory inputs, plus some special processing of sensory information by our brains ensures that we have a rich flow of information from the environment to our minds.
Everything that we know about our reality comes by way of our senses. In other words, our entire experience of reality is simply a combination of sensory information and our brains sense-making mechanisms for that information. It stands to reason then, that if you can present your senses with made-up information, your perception of reality would also change in response to it. You would be presented with a version of reality that isn’t really there, but from your perspective it would be perceived as real. Something we would refer to as a virtual reality.
So, in summary, virtual reality entails presenting our senses with a computer generated virtual environment that we can explore in some fashion.
In technical terms, answering “what is virtual reality” is straight-forward. Virtual reality is the term used to describe a three-dimensional, computer generated environment which can be explored and interacted with by a person. That person becomes part of this virtual world or is immersed within this environment and whilst there, is able to manipulate objects or perform a series of actions.
How Virtual Reality Works?
Using computer technology to create a simulated, three-dimensional world that a user can manipulate and explore while feeling as if he were in that world. Scientists, theorists and engineers have designed dozens of devices and applications to achieve this goal. Opinions differ on what exactly constitutes a true VR experience, but in general it should include:
- Three-dimensional images that appear to be life-sized from the perspective of the user
- The ability to track a user’s motions, particularly his head and eye movements, and correspondingly adjust the images on the user’s display to reflect the change in perspective
In short, it all has to do with a computer doing its best to trick your brain. A virtual reality headset shows you an image and as soon as you move your head it modifies that image to make it seem like you’re really there. 3D audio can also enhance the experience and make you forget your physical surroundings.
Types of Virtual Reality
“Virtual reality” has often been used as a marketing buzzword for compelling, interactive video games or even 3D movies and television programs, none of which really count as VR because they don’t immerse you either fully or partially in a virtual world. Nevertheless, things like interactive games and computer simulations would certainly meet parts of our definition up above, so there’s clearly more than one approach to building virtual worlds—and more than one flavour of virtual reality. Here are a few of the bigger variations:
For the complete VR experience, we need three things. First, a plausible, and richly detailed virtual world to explore; a computer model or simulation, in other words. Second, a powerful computer that can detect what we’re going and adjust our experience accordingly, in real time (so what we see or hear changes as fast as we move—just like in real reality). Third, hardware linked to the computer that fully immerses us in the virtual world as we roam around. Usually, we’d need to put on what’s called a head-mounted display (HMD) with two screens and stereo sound, and wear one or more sensory gloves. Alternatively, we could move around inside a room, fitted out with surround-sound loudspeakers, onto which changing images are projected from outside.
A highly realistic flight simulator on a home PC might qualify as nonimmersive virtual reality, especially if it uses a very wide screen, with headphones or surround sound, and a realistic joystick and other controls. Not everyone wants or needs to be fully immersed in an alternative reality. An architect might build a detailed 3D model of a new building to show to clients that can be explored on a desktop computer by moving a mouse. Most people would classify that as a kind of virtual reality, even if it doesn’t fully immerse you. In the same way, computer archaeologists often create engaging 3D reconstructions of long-lost settlements that you can move around and explore. They don’t take you back hundreds or thousands of years or create the sounds, smells, and tastes of prehistory, but they give a much richer experience than a few pastel drawings or even an animated movie.
What about “virtual world” games like Second Life and Minecraft? Do they count as virtual reality? Although they meet the first four of our criteria (believable, interactive, computer-created and explorable), they don’t really meet the fifth: they don’t fully immerse you. But one thing they do offer that cutting-edge VR typically doesn’t is collaboration: the idea of sharing an experience in a virtual world with other people, often in real time or something very close to it. Collaboration and sharing are likely to become increasingly important features of VR in future.
Virtual reality was one of the hottest, fastest-growing technologies in the late 1980s and early 1990s, but the rapid rise of the World Wide Web largely killed off interest after that. Even though computer scientists developed a way of building virtual worlds on the Web (using a technology analogous to HTML called Virtual Reality Markup Language, VRML), ordinary people were much more interested in the way the Web gave them new ways to access real reality—new ways to find and publish information, shop, and share thoughts, ideas, and experiences with friends through social media. With Facebook’s growing interest in the technology, the future of VR seems likely to be both Web-based and collaborative.
Why have virtual reality?
This may seem like a lot of effort, and it is! What makes the development of virtual reality worthwhile? The potential entertainment value is clear. Immersive films and video games are good examples. The entertainment industry is after all a multi-billion dollar one and consumers are always keen on novelty. Virtual reality has many other, more serious, applications as well.
There are a wide variety of applications for virtual reality which include:
- The Arts
Virtual reality can lead to new and exciting discoveries in these areas which impact upon our day to day lives.
Wherever it is too dangerous, expensive or impractical to do something in reality, virtual reality is the answer. From trainee fighter pilots to medical applications trainee surgeons, virtual reality allows us to take virtual risks in order to gain real world experience. As the cost of virtual reality goes down and it becomes more mainstream you can expect more serious uses, such as education or productivity applications, to come to the fore. Virtual reality and its cousin augmented reality could substantively change the way we interface with our digital technologies. Continuing the trend of humanising our technology.
The Future of Virtual Reality
Although the VR landscape has grown leaps and bounds since the first prototypes debuted decades ago, it however, remains clear to many that virtual reality still presides in its formative years. One such area of interest that has long preoccupied researchers is the notion of increased physicality. “The next evolution of VR would be where you participate physically in that VR world and not just sitting down; if you’re a quarterback, you actually get to throw a football, and you can interface with the team. So that kind of stuff, it’s there, it’s going to happen,” described Nelson Gonzalez, Alienware’s co-founder and former CEO in speaking with the Times.
Moreover, to better coincide with these touch control enhancements, many would like to see some past concepts further refined, namely, the elevated employment of our other senses as earlier attempted by the Sensorama in addressing matters of scent, vibrations and wind, etc. While VR headsets cater to visual and audio stimulation, tech companies face the current dilemma of attempting to integrate smell, taste, body temp fluctuations, etc. With a more well-rounded experience, one that dials into all sensory functions, we can surely better explore the relationship between what is virtual and what is reality.
Without question, the grandest, most anticipated scenario on everyone’s mind is; downing the red pill and entering into the matrix, so to speak. With the rapid development of such areas as neuroscience, nanotechnology and artificial intelligence, there are those who believe that such a truth is close at hand. While the most intricate concoction of goggles, headphones and external controllers have done well to provide a glimpse into an alternate reality, only when we learn to hijack the sensory inputs in our brain and successfully upload it into a computer, can we then attain a true virtually real existence. Broadly speaking, nanotech — already used in various medical procedures to deliver cancer-fighting medications would be called upon to deliver complex artificial intelligence programs to the brain — transporting us to the far of recesses of, well, anywhere. While some feel the idea ludicrous, essentially a page ripped from a telling science fiction novel, there are legions of others who believe this to be all but an inevitable fate.