What is Virtual Reality?
Virtual Reality (VR) means simulating bits of our world or completely imaginary worlds using high-performance computers and sensory equipment, like headsets and gloves. More technically we can also define virtual reality as a believable, interactive 3D computer-generated world that you can explore such that you feel that you really are there, both physically and mentally.
These aspects have to be met otherwise we cannot really term the experience as VR. The following are the reason for each criteria:
- Believable: You really need to feel like you are in the virtual world and to keep believing that, or else the illusionof virtual reality will disappear.
- Interactive: As you respond to what you see, what you see responds to you: if you turn your head around, what you see or hear in VR changes to match your new perspective.
- Computer-generated: You need powerful machines, with realistic 3D computer graphics that are fast enough to make believable, interactive, alternative worlds that change in real-time as you move around them.
- Explorable: A VR world needs to be big and detailed enough for you to explore.
- Immersive: VR needs to engage both your body and mind for it to be both believable and interactive.
If virtual reality ever lives up to its promise, you might be able to go to Mars, swim with sharks or even share the same stage with your all-time favourite artist without even leaving your home.
Types of virtual reality
There’s more than one approach to building virtual worlds – and more than one flavour of virtual reality. Here are a few of the bigger variations:
- Fully immersive
For the complete VR experience, we need three things.
- First, a computer model or simulation. This is a plausible and richly detailed virtual world to explore.
- Second, a powerful computer that can detect what you are doing and adjust your experience accordingly, in real time. What one sees or hears needs to change as fast as they move.
- Third, hardware linked to the computer that fully immerses you in the virtual world as you roam around. One needs to put on a head-mounted display (HMD) with two screens and stereo sound, and wear one or more sensory gloves. Alternatively, you could move around inside a room, fitted out with surround-sound loudspeakers, onto which changing images are projected from outside.
Classic examples of non-immersive VR experiences include:
- A highly realistic flight simulator on a home PC that uses a very wide screen, with headphonesor surround sound, and a realistic joystick and other controls.
- A detailed 3D model of a new building that can be explored on a desktop computer by moving a mouse.
- Engaging 3D reconstructions of long-lost settlements that you can move around and explore. They give a much richer experience than a few pastel drawings or even an animated movie.
Although “virtual world” games like Second Life and Minecraft are believable, interactive, computer-created and explorable, they don’t really fully immerse you. But one thing they do offer, that VR typically doesn’t, is collaboration: the idea of sharing an experience in a virtual world with other people, often in real time. Collaboration and sharing are likely to become increasingly important features of VR in future.
The 2014 acquisition of VR company Oculus, by Facebook is an indication that the future of VR seems likely to be both Web-based and collaborative. We can speculate the following are the sorts of social, collaborative virtual reality sharing that Facebook is thinking about exploring right now:
- Making it possible for people to attend your wedding remotely, in virtual reality, instead of merely sharing photos of your wedding with your Facebook friends.
- Making it possible to record historical events in such a way that people could experience them again and again.
Virtual reality was one of the hottest, fastest-growing technologies in the late 1980s and early 1990s, but the rapid rise of the Web largely killed off interest after that. It was during this time that computer scientists developed a way of building virtual worlds on the Web using a technology called Virtual Reality Markup Language (VRML). This technology is analogous to HTML.
- Augmented reality
The need of an enhanced experience of the exciting reality we can see in front of us is what spawned the idea of augmented reality (AR). A good example is when you point your smartphone at a landmark or a striking building and interesting information about it pops up automatically. Does Google glass ring a bell in this regard? In such instances what we want is typically not virtual reality.
Augmented reality is all about connecting the real world we experience to the vast virtual world of information that we’ve collectively created on the Web. Neither of these worlds is virtual, but the idea of exploring and navigating the two simultaneously does, nevertheless, have things in common with virtual reality.
A good case example of the application of AR is the now famous Pokémon Go game. The Microsoft HoloLens also is an augmented reality headset rather than a VR headset.
Applications of Virtual Reality
Science, architecture, medicine, and the military all rely on VR technology in different ways. Some of the areas it has been applied directly include:
Difficult and dangerous jobs such as taking a trip to space, landing a jumbo jet, making a parachute jump, or carrying out brain surgery are hard to train for but with VR you can safely practice. Flight cockpit simulators were among the earliest VR applications; they can trace their history back to mechanical simulators developed by Edwin Link in the 1920s. Just like pilots, surgeons are now routinely trained using VR.
- Scientific visualization
With virtual reality you can design new materials or drugs you want by experimenting with the atomic or molecular structures. Previously one had to deal with numbers, equations, or two-dimensional drawings of molecular structures. This kind of work began in the 1960s at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where Frederick Brooks launched GROPE, a project to develop a VR system for exploring the interactions between protein molecules and drugs.
Telemedicine (the monitoring, examining or operating on patients remotely) has been possible because of virtual reality. This is a case where a surgeon in one location is hooked up to a virtual reality control panel and a robot in another location is wielding the knife. The best-known example of this is the daVinci surgical robot, released in 2009.
- Industrial design and architecture
Architects can now build virtual reality computer models that you can walk through and explore rather than the usual card and paper models. This is an area where virtual reality overlaps with computer modelling: instead of simply making an immersive 3D visual model for people to inspect and explore, you’re creating a mathematical model that can be tested for its aerodynamic, safety or other qualities.
- Games and entertainment
This is a niche where VR has been extensively applied. The experience has also been adapted for mobile phones recently. The HTC Vive and Oculus Rift are majorly the two VR headsets that shade light on VR again. This has caused a boom in the VR market with more players joining in. Game developers are now focusing more on coming up with VR games. There are even VR apps that teach you how to dance.