What is ........ Virtual Reality?

What is it?

When many people think about the term 'virtual reality', they imagine a scene like the one on the right where somebody is wired up to a computer wearing an odd helmet and making weird movements in the air. However, there is a lot more to virtual reality and it has some incredibly practical uses, so read on.

'Virtual' reality means that the user is fully immersed in a world or artificial environment that the computer has generated.

As you walk around the virtual world your view changes in line with what you would expect in real life. Things get bigger as you walk towards them and smaller as you walk away. Also the direction of sounds move as you move around, once again giving you the impression of a real scene.

How does it work.

There a number of systems but they have some common features that include:-

1. A set of goggles that controls what your left and right eyes see. By providing slightly different views into each eye, your brain is fooled into thinking that the scene is 3D. Virtual chairs look solid and so on.

2. Other wearable input devices are used such as gloves that detect your finger movements. As you wiggle or tap your fingers on a virtual control then the computer carries out the command, such as turning on a virtual television.

3. Headphones to control what you hear.

The other part is a powerful computer that can create the graphics and sound in 'real time'. These images may be projected onto the walls and floor of the room. So you can walk around freely.

How good is it now?

It is good enough to physically affect someone in it. For example, when they may be shown a scary situation such as a fire appearing in front of them, their heart will beat faster and breathing speed up.

This shows that the VR is convincing enough to cause an effect. Which is the whole point of VR really.

The graphics are "OK" but not realistic by any means. But the odd thing is that people react strongly even in a low-res scene. It is the situation that matters, not what it looks like.

Is it a game?

Not really, a game is made for entertainment and excitement. But VR is used for more serious purposes (although you could imagine a VR game world).

For example, architects have used basic VR systems for a while to allow clients to 'walk' around their new design.

VR is being used by researchers / therapists to help patients overcome phobias and anxieties. The person is placed in a VR scene where they experience a tame, controlled version of what they are afraid of. For example, someone might be painfully shy, so the therapist may put them in a busy virtual place where 'people' come up to them and try and talk (these avatars would be controlled by the therapy team as well). Slowly the person becomes used to the situation and can relax.

Some soldiers have suffered distress on the battlefield and need help to cope and so VR is being used to take them through a carefully controlled version of what gave them a problem.

Some doctors and dentists are using virtual reality with their patients. People with severe burns suffer from incredible pain when their wounds need redressing. Researchers have found that by allowing them to use virtual reality during treatment, their awareness of pain was greatly reduced.

Another important use of VR is training for dangerous situations where it is unethical or impractical to practice the real thing. For example a large fire on an oil rig would never be set up, but in a VR system that is perfectly possible and so workers can practice the emergency in a safe environment.

See the medical burns story http://arstechnica.com/news.ars/post/20081114-snowy-game-vr-goggles-take-burn-victims-minds-off-of-pain.html

What are the downsides to VR?

If you have ever been sea-sick or travel-sick then a poor VR set-up might make you feel the same way. This is because you are seeing one thing but your brain is getting a different story from your sense of balance. When what you see and what you feel do not match (like on a ship) then you may feel ill.

Another downside is that VR is very complicated and so needs expensive equipment to set up and run. So proper VR games are a long way away.

And the future?

Display technology will continue to improve and so VR will become ever more realistic visually. Sufficient computing power is here already for that. But it is the input and output devices that will have to improve. For example researchers are working on better devices to control the sense of touch and smell.

In the future it may be practical to use VR to safely fly a remote control aircraft as if the pilot was really in the machine. For example flying the remote-control aircraft into a hurricane or volcanic eruption to take scientific readings. Sensors on the real aircraft would allow the pilot to see, hear and even feel what is going on in the virtual reality version but without any danger to life and limb.

It could also be applied to remote controlled submarines that explore the sea looking for oil and mineral reserves or perhaps exploring other planets such as Mars and Titan in the far future.



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