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Inside the Amazing World of Virtual Reality

This revolutionary technology goes way beyond games

The concept of virtual reality has been stoking the creativity of filmmakers, playwrights, authors, and other artists for decades. Tron, The Truman Show, The Matrix, The Lawnmower Man, Jacob's Ladder, Inception, and Brazil are just a few examples of popular movies that have explored this theme. The idea of being able to enter a different world is intriguing because it implies we can do anything our imaginations can invent.

In 2016, several virtual reality headsets became available to the public to interface with various applications and devices. While games make up the majority of programs at this point, new applications are being developed all the time. As with other major technological platforms — such as smartphones — the direction of the industry will depend on developers' capabilities and consumers' preferences.

This article lets you explore the fascinating realm of virtual reality including its history, how it works, and how close we are to experiencing a holodeck in the style of Star Trek. Learn about practical uses for virtual reality technology, such as making worksites safer and helping people develop empathy for others. Also, don't miss the roundup of some of the most popular virtual reality games now available. No matter what your interests, if they're not represented in a virtual reality program yet, chances are good they will be soon.

 

Virtual Reality is the Next Big Thing

In 2012, Oculus VR initiated a Kickstarter campaign to fund development of the Oculus Rift, a virtual reality headset. The campaign raised $2.5 million for the company, which was 10 times its fundraising goal. In 2014, Facebook purchased Oculus VR for $2 billion. These figures demonstrate excitement within the general public and Silicon Valley about virtual reality technology, and there's a lot to be excited about.

The dream of virtual reality technology is that in addition to providing entertainment, which is its primary function now, it could allow you to experience virtually whatever is possible in the real world. For instance, you could check out the view from the top of Mt. Everest, visit Tahiti, tour the Louvre Museum, or even walk on the Moon. While you can see many of these places online now, the virtual reality versions would enable you to feel as though you were actually there.

Granted, the technology has a way to go before it reaches that point. But it can currently allow you to do some pretty cool things — such as invite friends to join you in a virtual cinema so you can watch movies together, or let you virtually attend live concerts and TV show tapings. Other apps are being developed including 360-degree photos, movies, and business programs. Media outlets such as The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the Associated Press have released their own virtual reality content as well.

With the potential for so many fascinating uses, there's no telling which virtual worlds we may be able to enter next.

A Look Back at Virtual Reality's Beginnings
The concept of virtual reality in various forms has been around at least since the 1800s, when visual artists created large 360-degree paintings to immerse viewers in the world depicted within. An early version of the virtual reality machines we have today was created by Morton Helig; his Sensorama presented films that provided input to the viewer via sight, sound, smell, and touch.

The term "virtual reality" was popularized in the 1980s by field pioneer Jaron Lanier, whose company VPL Research developed several early virtual reality devices. Since that decade, the technology has continued to develop through uses in gaming, space exploration, marketing, and other virtual experiences.

Meanwhile, popular culture has also reflected the notion of virtual reality. For example, The Veldt, a 1951 Ray Bradbury story, takes place within a virtual nursery. Later, author William Gibson wrote Neuromancer, which also involves characters acting within a virtual world.

How Virtual Reality is Enhancing Safety, Education, Medicine, and More

Virtual reality has the potential to mimic just about any real-world reality, helping users plan, learn, heal, and experience things they may not be able to experience in any other way. In the coming years, virtual reality will expand into more areas of life. Here are a few exciting uses already underway:

Remodeling a Room
Lowe's, the home improvement giant, is using what it calls a Holoroom to virtually remodel a room. The Holoroom combines a headset and software to allow you to try different decorating options with the sense that you're in the actual room. Other companies have similar products including Personal Architect software, Ikea's virtual planner, and Ideal Spaces.

Making Work Sites Safer
Construction can be dangerous, but virtual reality is making it safer. A group of German researchers is applying the same technology used in computer games to allow construction supervisors to design sites in advance and then virtually check them for potential problems. Because virtual workers have unlimited lives, problematic equipment or site arrangements can be identified in advance.

Improving Education
Remember learning about biology from pictures in textbooks? What if those pictures could come to life? That's exactly what happens with The Body VR, a virtual tour through the human body. Available through the Steam entertainment platform and the Oculus Store, this presentation gives you an up-close view of various parts of the human anatomy for a memorable experience of how they function.

Increasing Empathy
Results from a recent study showed that participants understand the plight of animals in perilous situations better if they have a physical experience that mimics the conditions rather than if they simply watch a film about it. This type of experience may help humans better care for animals and the environment. Similarly, government organizations are creating virtual scenarios to help citizens empathize with refugees and military personnel.

Simplifying Home Sales
New home seekers can use a headset to virtually walk through a house either at a real estate office or from their home. This process makes house hunting easier and more convenient for both homebuyers and sellers. Of course, shoppers will still physically go to view homes, but virtual reality helps them rule out those homes not worth the time of an in-person tour.

Treating Medical Conditions
Virtual reality technology can be used to create soothing conditions for patients to experience while undergoing painful medical treatments. It can also help treat post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) by allowing sufferers to recreate difficult memories with a therapist. Additionally, it can assist those prone to anxiety attacks by guiding them through calming breathing exercises.

 

Virtual Reality Makes Your Brain Think You're Somewhere Else

To do its job, virtual reality technology needs to accomplish one thing: trick your mind into believing your body is somewhere other than where it really is. In the virtual reality world, this is known as immersion. An effective virtual reality experience requires three components:

Video is transmitted to the headset from the device that's running the application. Headsets receive two slightly different images, one for each eye, but the two images merge in your brain to form one; this effect is called stereoscopy. The way images are directed to your eyes mimics the three-dimensional way you see things in the real world. Images are displayed at a frame rate high enough to feed the illusion of being in another place. Low frame rates can cause visual lags, not to mention nausea, otherwise known as cybersickness.

Based on inputs to an internal gyroscope, accelerometer, and magnetometer, the headset tracks the movements of your head and shows a different view depending on where you look. Some headsets also use eye-tracking technology to finetune your view of the virtual world.

Headphones or speakers that project spatial audio, also known as 3D audio, increase the sensation of reality with sounds seeming to come from different directions. When you're ready, you can use the input device to move through the virtual space of a game, movie, concert, or whatever world you're in.

What's the Difference Between Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality?
While virtual reality seeks to create an alternate reality, augmented reality seeks to enhance a reality that's already there. Examples of virtual reality environments include games, movies, trainings, and simulations. Pilots can learn to fly by using a virtual reality environment representing a plane.

Examples of augmented reality applications include score overlays on telecasted sports games and pop-out messages on mobile devices. Someone working on their car could consult an augmented reality diagram of the car's engine with an overlay of labeled parts. A similar process can be used for online food preparation videos enhanced with a written list of ingredients or cooking instructions.

Equipment needed for virtual reality applications usually includes a handset or hand-held controller. Augmented reality, by contrast, is typically programmed into apps used on a mobile device. The virtual reality experience includes visual, audio, and haptic (touch) elements, while augmented reality is generally limited to visual input.

 

Have Virtual Fun With These Game Favorites

3D games have been around for many years and, with virtual reality devices, those 3D environments are becoming even more lifelike. If you have a virtual reality headset, here are some of the best games to try (note that some are only available for specific systems):

ADR1FT
Have you seen the movie Gravity? Then you have a good understanding of the environment for this game. Your task is to survive on as little oxygen as possible without dying.

Audioshield
Bringing in a physical element, this game requires you to hit brightly colored orbs coming toward you. The background music can be tailored to your taste.

Bigscreen
Bigscreen isn't actually a game, but is a fun virtual reality program that allows you to project games (or other content on your computer) onto a larger screen and share it with others.

Minecraft VR
Popular as a non-virtual game, Minecraft is even more fun in virtual reality.

Hover Junkers
Like many other games, this one involves a multiplayer format in which you try to shoot the other team's guys and save your own. Fantastic Contraption Here you're challenged to build contraptions to solve various problems presented by the game.

Job Simulator
Surprisingly fun, this game enables you to experience various jobs such as auto mechanic and office worker.

Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes
The unusual format of this game involves one person attempting to diffuse a bomb while other players provide the instructions for how to do it.

Virtual Reality's Roadblocks on the Way to Mainstream
In 2014, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced that Facebook would buy Oculus VR, which developed one of the first virtual reality headsets designed for consumers, the Oculus Rift. At the time, Zuckerberg commented that virtual reality will become the next big computing platform. However, before it does so, it will need to get past some roadblocks.

The first roadblock is price. The Oculus Rift costs around $600, and you may need to buy additional equipment to operate it. Additionally, use of such a system may require technical know-how as well as plenty of floor space within your home. The headset may not be comfortable for many people, as it may feel heavy and is awkward for glasses wearers; even worse, early users have reported feeling nauseous while wearing it. These obstacles aren't insurmountable, but will need to be addressed if virtual reality is to become a common feature in people's homes.

 

Predicting the Future of the Virtual Reality Market

Still in its early stages, virtual reality will make significant advancements in the years ahead. A 2016 report issued by Greenlight VR and Road to VR predicted that 2 million consumers would have virtual reality headsets by the end of the year, nearly 37 million consumers will have them by the end of 2020, and over 135 million (most of them mobile) will have them by the end of 2025.1

Consumer demand has only recently begun with the launch of several virtual reality devices from major manufacturers. However, without wanted applications (as with early smartphones), there isn't yet a strong impetus for purchase. The study's authors believe the must-have apps on the horizon will likely involve social networking.

Another prediction from the study is that the PlayStation VR headset may outsell the more well-known Oculus Rift due to a lower price tag. But, different devices may appeal to different groups of consumers. In a recent Time interview, executives from gaming PC manufacturer Alienware noted that the technology will likely develop across the industry, not from just one company.2

The Greenlight study noted that a likely milestone for virtual reality technology will be stand-alone headsets that have all the needed systems within them and aren't connected to any other device. The simplicity of this version would attract more consumers. However, the Time article noted that there may be a delay in this development because wireless technology is on a "different schedule."

FAST FACT: Many recognizable companies like McDonald's and John Deere have created some form of a virtual reality experience for customers.

1Greenlight Insights, "Virtual Reality Industry Report: Fall 2016," http://www.greenlightinsights.com/reports/2016-industry-report/.

2Lisa Eadicicco, Time, "3 Things To Know About the Future of Virtual Reality," http://time.com/4324598/alienware-interview-virtual-reality/.

Sorry, Star Trek Fans: The Holodeck is Still a Long Way Off
Star Trek fans know that a holodeck is the ultimate in virtual reality. The holodeck — which allows users to create and interact in a variety of virtual worlds — is an integral part of many story lines in The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and Voyager. But how possible is it that this hyper-realistic platform might become available for wide use anytime soon? Unfortunately for Star Trek fans and virtual reality fans alike, the answer is, "not very."

A working holodeck would require several technologies that aren't yet fully developed. For example, holograms are available now, but can only be based on pre-recorded images and can't move around. The current level of artificial intelligence (AI) is also in a very early stage, and is nowhere near the point of realism that would be needed for holodeck characters. Whole-room projections, the ability to walk without actually moving, and other needed enhancements are in use now, but still a good way from being holodeck-ready.

 


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