What is Virtual Reality? Here's everything you need to know

We are on the cusp of something exciting.
Ameya Paleja
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Woman using VR headsets.

Thinkhubstudio/iStock 

Virtual Reality (VR) is touted by many as the technology that will revolutionize how we live, work and entertain ourselves. For years, companies have been pouring in billions of dollars to develop the technologies and gadgets needed to access this whole new world. Now that we are on the cusp of this technology explosion, let's have a look at what virtual reality means and how it will impact our future. Let's start from the very basics.

What is Virtual Reality?

The term virtual reality refers to a three-dimensional, computer-generated environment that is presented to our senses as if it were really present and can be interacted with. Just like our sensory organs and the brain help us perceive the world around us, they can also be presented with a virtual world that can be perceived to be real or a virtual reality.

Modern technological advancements allow us to not only experience such a world but also interact with objects or other people therein, making the experience more immersive and realistic, terms that are often associated with virtual reality.

Virtual reality, or VR, is achieved today using a mix of technologies such as specially designed headsets and haptics which help in stimulating the senses to create the illusion of the virtual world. An important feature of VR is that perspectives change in accordance with a person's movement in the digital space, and this can be a crucial decider of whether the experience is realistic and also enjoyable.

History of Virtual Reality

It might seem that technologies like VR have a relatively short history spanning no more than a decade or so. However, it is the headset-dominated VR that is coming of age now. As a technology, precursors to VR have been in the works since the 1950s.

In 1962, innovator Morton Heilig used 3D movies to create the perception of a different world and added multi-sensory reality to it by using a machine that could generate vibrations, or wind, or give off peculiar odors. The setup was called the Sensorama Simulator, and it was an inspiration for some of the VR technology that has been developed in various forms ever since.

Head-mounted displays followed very soon thereafter, with two display screens and a magnetic tracking device, the first motion tracker to be used. The use of VR technology for training purposes kicked off with the development of a flight simulator for the U.S. Air Force in 1968.

Gaming companies like Nintendo made 3D gaming portable with its Virtual Boy, while Google brought VR straight to the desktop by launching Street View for cities.

Types of Virtual Reality

It might seem a bit strange that Google's Street View, which does not require any dedicated device, can also be classified as VR. That's because Virtual reality is a rather broad term and encompasses different types of experiences.

Non-immersive

These are 3D experiences that are accessed through a computer screen. The sound may also be used to enhance the experience and the user can control the environment using a mouse or a keyboard. Under this category, a video game, or even a website that lets you tour a destination, could be considered an example of VR.

Semi-immersive

These are applications that offer a partial VR experience that can either be accessed using a computer screen or a headset. Physical movement may not be a priority in such experiences, since the 3D display is given more importance. A flight simulator is a good example of such an experience.

Fully Immersive

This is the most advanced VR experience. It attempts to completely shuts off the user from the real world. It involves the senses of sight and sound, and touch and smell are also being experimented with recently. Even with the use of dedicated devices, fully immersive VR technology is still new and is expected to make major headway in various areas.

How is it different from Augmented Reality?

For the uninitiated, augmented reality is the technology that enables overlaying of a virtual object or characters over the real-world environment of the user. The popular game Pokemon Go is the perfect example of augmented reality that uses the existing environment and then creates a layer of another reality over it.

Since augmented reality (AR) also stems from a virtual simulation, some consider AR also to be an aspect of virtual reality. However, since AR does not create a fully immersive environment, many consider it a different experience altogether. However, as we have noted above, semi, as well as non-immersive environments are also part of VR.

As Interesting Engineering has described elsewhere, work is also afoot to bring together both of these virtual worlds in what is referred to as mixed reality. Apple's upcoming headset is believed to dwell in this space, although very little is known about it.

Applications of Virtual Reality

VR has largely been associated with gaming but given its potential, the technology has widespread applications, ranging from entertainment to education, retail to real estate, and much more. Here are a few examples of how VR can help.

VR reality could lead to a whole new industry of virtual tourism where visitors can experience destinations in fully immersive modes without having to travel across the seas. The experience of the pandemic and its impact on the travel and tourism industry may make a case for the utility of virtual tourism.

A VR experience could also greatly enhance learning, whether it is in a classroom or in an industrial setting. For example, students could don a VR headset to gain firsthand experience of dissection where no animals are killed, experience life in ancient Rome, or learn engine maintenance without the expense of a real engine.

VR environments could also help us reach areas that are either inaccessible or that no longer exist, such as the surface of the Moon, or other times in human history, and operate in them to gain a better understanding of the situation. VR could also allow people in far-flung locations to cooperate on a project together as if they were all in the same room.

In healthcare, VR could help patients interact with their physicians in a private virtual space. The technology has also been shown to help patients affected by anorexia or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

The retail sector has only just begun to explore the possibilities of VR, which could allow users to try on clothes or accessories virtually before buying, or even decorate their homes or try out new hairstyles before making any physical changes. Similarly, the real estate sector has begun using VR to show properties to clients and help them envision plans for remodeling or new construction, even down to the tiniest detail.

Limitations of VR

As with any developing technology, VR is not without its shortcomings. Even after millions of dollars spent on the technology, there are issues like clipping, where solid objects appear as though one can pass through them, thereby taking the edge off the immersive experience.

When not synchronized properly, which can happen with slower connection speeds, VR can induce motion sickness in users since there is a mismatch between the user movement and that of the virtual environment in which the user is operating in.

Creating the perfect VR experience requires the headset maker to take in multiple inputs from the user, requiring a number of sensors in the device. Additionally, rendering the virtual environment requires a lot of processing power. Some of this is packed in the VR headset, making it heavy.

Since manufacturers are still developing new tools to deliver these new experiences, the cost of the components is rather high, making the devices costly to procure. For those who do manage to purchase these devices, there are risks of addiction to these experiences as well as the potential of damage to the eyes, such as worsening myopia, eye strain, eye fatigue, and blurred vision, since the VR displays are located just a few centimeters away from the eyes.

The future

The field of Virtual Reality took a leap when Mark Zuckerberg-led Facebook pivoted toward building the metaverse, a digital world built using VR. Although this has not gone well thus far, businesses across sectors have taken the plunge into VR since, in a bid to stay ahead of the competition.

How exciting an experience they will be able to deliver, however, depends on the advances that are made in the core technology in the near future. Big technology companies such as Sony, Microsoft, and others are now working to develop headsets that do not need wires and cables and packing them with processors more powerful than before and displays sharper than we have seen.

Supporting technologies such availability of 5G internet will also help VR move ahead with low latency that will be hard to detect and senses of touch and smell will also be invoked. Coupled with augmented reality, virtual reality will truly change how we interact with digital worlds.

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