What is virtual reality?

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Virtual reality seems to have taken the world by storm as of late. But what exactly is virtual reality, and how will it affect our lives going forward?

Virtual reality is a fully immersive computer-simulated environment that gives you the feeling of being in a specific environment. Video games have recently developed the technology enough to place users into an interactive world, whether it be in the driving seat of a car, on the battlefield of a first person shooter, or in a thrilling roller-coaster. However, a big misconception is VR alters your perception of reality – it doesn’t. Rather, you’re simply a spectator of the events that are happening in that world.

There are 4 key factors that are crucial in the creation of a truly immersive experience necessary for virtual reality.

  • Headset devices use something called stereoscopic display to make what you see 3D and give depth to the image you’re looking at, kind of like how our eyes see anyway.
  • The ability to track a player’s motions, particularly head and eye movements, allow the images displayed in the headset to change with your perspective.
  • Besides vision, certain VR experiences will also include other sensory stimulation such as sound and touch.
  • Lastly, there has to be a certain level of virtual interactivity. True interactivity should allow the user a certain level of control of navigation, ie. Walk forward, backward, or turn around, so you don’t just feel like you’re watching an elaborate 3D movie.

Our brains truly perceive the virtual reality world as real when these four factors line up, as we are able to freely move in and interact with things in it. Virtual reality has actually existed for quite a while, frequently used as training simulators for soldiers, pilots and doctors, but has seen a surge in popularity lately thanks to advancements in technology and hardware.

Devices like the Oculus Rift have enhanced the VR experience by including superior graphics, improved latency and wider range of motion. Reduced costs of components are also allowing virtual reality devices to become more affordable for consumers.

Benefits of Virtual Reality

  • woman-wearing-vr-headsetIt’s a useful training tool. VR is often used in areas requiring specialization like surgery, combat, flying, etc. where the risk of physical harm is high with normal training methods. One study of laparoscopic surgeons showed that the best virtual reality game players made 47% fewer errors and performed 39% faster than those worse.
  • Instant feedback. One reason why VR is a great training tool is because it offers real-time feedback. Getting instant results about success or failure can dramatically cut down the learning curve time, as well as making it easy to document and analyze outcomes.
  • Allows skills to be developed at one’s own pace. VR environments allow repeated practice of the same tasks. This allows users to hone in on weak points they wish to improve in an efficient manner.
  • Helps patients deal with severe pain. Victims of severe burns, for example, find relief by playing SnowWorld, a comforting game that lets you shoot snowballs at penguins. Other simulations help relieve phantom limb pain suffered by amputees. More of these types of therapies will likely become available on a wider scale in the near future.
  • Helps people with autism. Studies have shown children with autism interact well with VR which can help them learn social cues and enhance motor skills. VR is easy to control, predictable, and has infinite patience.

Drawbacks of Virtual Reality

  • May impede imagination and creativity. In the VR world, imagining is done for you. The real-time visual media doesn’t allow any time for reflection, analysis or imagination. Maintaining a balance between the technology and the self is important, but hard to do with virtual reality.
  • Blurs boundaries between outside world and reality. Many parts of the world already suffer from large bouts of video game addiction. What will happen when we begin to spend more time in the virtual world than the real one? Our sense of reality may eventually become distorted. We may begin to prefer the virtual world over our world. Any of these scenarios are at least somewhat likely, and very scary.
  • Motion sickness. Some people seem to be susceptible to motion sickness in virtual reality worlds, just as others are sick on boats. Hopefully this is just a technology issue and will be fixed in the future.
  • Invades privacy. The future of VR technology could culminate in brain implants to enhance our cognitive functions and our ability to connect with virtual environments. We will truly have no more privacy. We will become numbers in a system. And what if our brains become susceptible to hackers?


Big virtual reality players

  • Oculus Rift. Of course the Oculus Rift would be our first mention. The headset that started the current hysteria, the Rift plugs into your computer’s DVI and USB ports and tracks your head movements to provide 3D imagery to its stereo screens. The latest version brings 360 degree perspectives and 1080p visuals.
  • Sony Project Morpheus. The PS4-powered headset is expected to be released in early 2016. It holds a 5.7-inch OLED with a 120hz refresh rate, making 120fps gaming a real possibility.
  • HTC Vine. This headset Steam made in collaboration with Valve is due to hit stores before the end of the year. It’ll plug into PCs, packs 70 sensors and a 360-degree head-tracking software along with a 90hz refresh rate.
  • Samsung Gear VR. Samsung’s VR is possibly the best all-around and consumer-friendly headset. It’s an Oculus Rift powered device that uses a Samsung Galaxy smartphone as its processor and display.
  • Microsoft HoloLens. The HoloLens is actually half virtual reality, half augmented reality. It does this by merging real world elements with virtual holographic images, meaning you can walk around on the surface of the moon in your living room. A full Windows 10 system is built into the system and runs off battery. It will probably be released in 2016.
  • Google Cardboard. It seems like a joke, but it’s not. Google Cardboard lets users pop a smartphone into a cardboard container and strap it to their heads – a low cost but somewhat effective way to experience virtual reality. Turns out your smartphone contains all the necessary gyroscopic sensors and positioning systems to accurately track your head movements.