What is Virtual Reality Exactly?
The objective of this article is to introduce virtual reality (VR) by describing and explaining the history around it. Examples of hardware and peripherals will be covered as well as applications of virtual reality in various settings beyond gaming. By the end, one will have a clear idea about this technology, the tools required for it and the many benefits of using VR in different environments and settings.
Definition and history of Virtual Reality
Virtual reality can be described as a computer-generated virtual world that is three dimensional and can be explored by its user. The user can touch and move objects in this virtual world and become so immersed within it that it feels like real life.
Virtual reality first became possible in the 1950s by cinematographer Morton Heilig who built a single user console called Sensorama. This was basically the very first three-dimensional television. By the 1960’s computer scientists such as Jaron Lanier, Douglas Engelbart, and Ivan Sutherland were excited and keen to research and experiment with new forms of technology such as input devices, user interfaces, multimedia and 360 degrees user experience.
Due to increased interest in virtual worlds, further developments were made with Virtual Reality over time, combined improvements such as an increase in processing speed, improved graphics cards, advances in interactive technologies, and web 2.0. Improvements in the movie and television industries also contributed to developments in virtual reality. Virtual worlds such as ‘Second Life’ were now possible enabling the user to fully engage with these environments in ways which we had never previously considered.
During the 1990s Nintendo made a large financial investment on VR hardware. They were working towards transmitting images to the gamer via a virtual reality headgear and the goal was to provide an affordable game console. The Nintendo Virtual Boy was released in 1995 at a cost of $180. It was unsuccessful and it was discontinued the following year because of the high-end hardware that is used.
So it was back to the drawing board for Nintendo to invent a new generation in gaming, and in 2006 they launched the Wii. Nintendo claimed they were:
“introducing a new generation in gaming, the Wii moves you with unprecedented gameplay experiences that take the fun to a whole new level.” - Nintendo
The Nintendo Wii uses a handheld controller for the gamer to engage with objects on the game in front of them and as a result, change the interaction.
Hardware and peripherals
The main difference between virtual reality tools of the past and the present is that the bulky looking gear which was uncomfortable and expensive, has, become more affordable, smaller, lighter and therefore more comfortable and easier to use. The bulky head-mounted display (HMD) has been replaced by lighter models which fit more comfortably over the eyes and face.
A new beginning for consumer Virtual Reality and computer gaming
The oculus rift has made a big impact since the consumer version got released in 2015. In a few short years, it has gone from strength to strength in its development. With Mark Zuckerberg’s recent $2 billion acquisition of the company, the stage is set for great things to happen in the form of virtual reality in movies and games.
This technology could and probably will be, used in a wide range of industries with other companies as well, like Sony, with its version called “Morpheus” which is currently in development, The Virtual Reality stage will be set for the modern consumer. Oculus development started as a crowdfunding campaign at Kickstarter, where they were able to raise over $2 million. The money was then spent on design and manufacture of the “Development Kit 1”. The kit was aimed at software developers who create games for Virtual Reality or incorporate it into existing software solutions.
In 2014 the “Development Kit 2” was released with enhanced features like “positional tracking” and “Low persistence OLED display”. Previous incarnations of Virtual Reality had many bugs in its system and created nausea with consumers. The visual quality was not good enough for the technology to reach the level of sales it had hoped for. It does seem like the time could be right for consumer Virtual Reality now.
The gaming industry will play a big part in the success of this Virtual Reality technology, and luckily many big games are being developed that will be Oculus Rift Compatible. Oculus will be the frontrunner provider of the Virtual Reality technology, while games developers like David Braben's “Frontier Developments” and Chris Roberts “Cloud Imperium Games” are working on the big space simulator games called “Elite Dangerous” and “Star Citizen”. These games place the player in the cockpits of Starfighter space ships, so with the incorporation of Virtual Reality technology like the Oculus Rift, the player will be able to have a full range of head movement around the cockpit, which will give the effect of actually being there.
Space Sims are perfect for Virtual Reality as the player is sitting at their desk playing on the computer controlling a character that is also sitting down in the cockpit. This will give the effect of realism and immerse the player into the game more and making the whole experience more believable.
Star Citizen is the biggest crowdfunded computer games project in history raising over $300 million to this point and still rising. This game will be “Rift Compatible” and will be a showcase example of how virtual reality can be used in a computer game. Chris Roberts, the developer of Star Citizen has always produced games that push computer technology to its limits. That is why his games are always visually impressive. Combine that with the freedom of movement that Virtual Reality can bring and result will be an impressive, fun experience for the consumer. This game is also going to allow walking around starships and hangers, which should also make good use of VR technology.
Hopefully, the development will continue and more and more games and software get developed for Oculus and its competitors so that the technology that is VR finally finds a permanent place in the lives of the modern average consumer, as opposed to the false starts that have happened in the past.
Gloves have always been a part of Virtual Reality equipment from the very start, although they were not developed for this initially. It can be said, however, that data gloves can be used in many working environments as well as gaming now. AnthroTronix, for example, developed the glove with the U.S. Department of Defense for robotic control.
Quite how data gloves work however can differ. Some gloves measure finger extension through the use of fibre-optic cables and light which passes through the cables through to the sensor. Depending on how the user moves, holds and curves his fingers determines the amount of light that makes it to the sensor. If the user makes a fist, for example, less light will make it to the sensor, which in turn sends the data to the Virtual Reality processing unit.
A cheaper option is the gloves that use strips of flexible material coated in an electrically conductive ink to measure a user’s hand and finger positions. As the user moves their fingers it changes the electrical resistance along the strips accordingly. Although these gloves are not as accurate than fibre-optic gloves, they are still very effective and are much more affordable.
If a user needs the most accurate and responsive glove on the market, a dexterous hand master (DHM) comes recommended as the best. This data glove attaches to the user’s finger joints with mechanical links, rather like an endoskeleton. Attached to each of these links are sensors, measuring each finger joint’s movement. These gloves are bulky and cumbersome however they are more accurate than either fibre-optic gloves or those using an electrically conductive material.
Haptics technology is defined as:
“the science of applying the touch sensation and control to interaction with computer applications. By using specific devices (joysticks, data gloves, for example), users can receive feedback from computer applications in the form of felt sensations in the hand or other parts of the body” - WhatIs.com
In combination with a virtual reality scene, haptics technology can be used to train people for tasks that require fine hand-eye coordination, such as surgery and learning to become a fighter pilot. It can also be used for games in which you feel interactions with the images.
Many of the earliest haptic feedback devises on the market used electromagnetic technologies such as vibratory motors. A vibrating alert in a mobile phone or a voice coil in a speaker is an example of such where a central mass is moved by an applied magnetic field. Now, in the fourth generation of haptics development, many technology companies are researching pressure-sensitive technology.
A few years back, Google released Google Glass. The purpose of Google Glass is to augment your reality, but as Google experiment and research their new product, there is a strong possibility that a virtual reality contact lens could be invented.
The Google Glass is a piece of prism-shaped glass which can project images on top of your existing vision. It is operated by voice commands, a touchscreen, and head movements. It is attached to a headset similar to a spectacle frame with only a square glass positioned in front of one eye.
Applications of Virtual Reality
The list of applications for Virtual Reality is endless and it is proving to be useful in ways which had never been thought possible. Virtual reality provides enormous benefits to us. These can include for example:
- The Military
- Art and Design
- The Entertainment Industry
- Education and schooling
- Business and Finance
- The media
- The treatment and study of phobias
- Visualisations, e.g. astronomy
- The study and treatment of addictions
- Forecasting weather
- Historical, e.g. re-creating ancient civilisations
- Data analysis
Virtual Reality in the military
A successful fully immersive virtual simulation training programme for American Soldiers was used at Fort Bragg. The Dismounted Soldier Training System is still available for the military to practice and improve their Soldiers’ training in a fully immersive, virtual reality environment. This system allows the users to engage in dangerous military tasks in a timely, safe and more cost-effective manner.
“I can see us in the future using this system to conduct rehearsals,” said Sgt. Charles Haywood, team leader, 1st Battalion, 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division.
The British Military (army, navy and air force) have also found virtual reality training to be of great benefit. It is used for training purposes for dangerous warfare, flight simulation and other areas of combat training without the risk of death, or injury to persons. Soldiers can practise scenes such as engaging the enemy in a particular environment, enabling them to become more accurate and confident. Another added benefit of Virtual Reality training is that is a far cheaper method, freeing up funds for other areas of the military budget.
Virtual Reality in healthcare
Virtual reality in health care is the most exciting and useful tool in all areas of medicine, surgery and psychiatry. Surgical simulations can allow trainee surgeons to learn and practice surgery in a safe environment. Virtual reality can be used to treat psychological illnesses too such as post-traumatic stress disorder and phobias. A person suffering from agoraphobia can learn how to deal with their symptoms in a less threatening environment. The virtual reality treatment exposes the stressors for their condition which is gradually increased. This has the effect of increasing their ability to cope with new or unexpected situations.
Medical experts in the UK and USA support the use of VR technologies and this usage has been divided into four application areas:
- Surgery, including surgical navigation and robot-assisted surgery
- Medical Data Visualization, including, advanced image reconstruction (in 2, and 4 dimensions). Pre-operative planning and advanced analytical software tools
- Education and training, including virtual surgical simulators and simulators for medical procedures
- Rehabilitation and therapy, including pain management, behavioural therapy, psychological therapy, physical rehabilitation, and motor skills training.
The clinical benefits to all areas of healthcare using virtual reality technology are numerous. They can include improved patient outcomes through a reduction in medical errors, improvements with the minimally invasive surgical (MIS) technique, improved diagnosis, and vast improvements with psychological and motor rehabilitation.
More examples of Virtual Reality and healthcare
- Virtual reality in dentistry
- Virtual reality in nursing
- Virtual reality therapies
- Virtual reality treatment for autism
- Virtual reality for the disabled
- The HumanSim system
- Virtual reality diagnostics
Virtual reality and Astronomy
The use of virtual reality in educating astronomy students is priceless. In the past, astronomers have struggled to elucidate the three-dimensional character of the Universe and probably the greatest value of Virtual Reality in astronomy is its power to allow users to visualise it. Astronomers can physically engage within the solar system, move planets, touch stars, observe comets and generally experiment with the Milky Way. Therefore they can gain a deeper understanding of how the solar system exists and how to manage catastrophes such as a comet heading towards earth.
Since its very first inventions in the 1950s, virtual reality has enabled us to push boundaries in many areas of everyday life. After more than 60 years of development in areas such as computer processors, graphics cards, web 2.0, film, television and the media, virtual reality experiences are becoming far more lifelike and equipment is becoming smaller and more affordable. Virtual Reality can now provide a safe environment for training and treating personnel, which can cut the costs of human lives and financial budgets.
It also helps us to improve our learning more than ever before in areas such as astronomy. Personal Computers and console games have improved at a fast rate and offer gamers excellent fun and close to real-life experiences. As scientist and inventors work further with this science (for example Oculus in California USA) there is hope that Virtual Reality equipment and experiences can become even more accessible with equipment becoming cheaper and smaller. Who knows how this technology will alter our loves over the next decade, but it will definitely be for the better.