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Scientists and engineers have been trying to perfect the technology needed for virtual reality since the 1960s. However, it just really hasn’t been possible until now. Today, technology has finally advanced to a stage where we can start to witness more immersive and effective virtual reality devices.
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But what is virtual reality exactly? In this comprehensive guide, you’ll learn what virtual reality is, how it works, the history of its development, and what you can look forward to in the future.
What Is Virtual Reality?
To put in the most general terms possible, virtual reality is any computer technology that uses software in order to create realistic sounds, images, and other features. It is technology that does one of two things:
It simulates a real environment as closely as possible down to recreating the same laws of physics and perfectly replicating real locations on earth.
It creates an imaginary or fantasy environment that is not based on the real world and obeys its own physical laws but is still so immersive that the user feels like they are really in that world.
In a virtual reality world, users can “look around” or move about in the artificial environment as if they were actually there. In the more elaborate versions, the technology can also create simulated sensations of touch and smell (in addition to sight and hearing).
How Virtual Reality Works
Virtual reality works by using a combination of hardware and software to create an immersive, realistic feeling virtual experience. Images are displayed on a computer monitor, on a projector screen or inside of a virtual reality headset (like the Oculus Rift).
With a headset, the virtual experience is made even more immersive because the headset itself blocks out sights and sounds from the actual real world so that you are completely surrounded by and immersed in the virtual world.
In order for the user to be able to look and move around, devices need to have motion tracking technology. With motion tracking sensors capable of registering the movement of the user’s head and/or body, the device can continuously reorient the image on the screen in order to sync with the actual movements of the user.
To recreate touch sensations, a virtual reality system needs something called a haptic feedback device. This is something that the user wears (like a glove or vest) and it has sensors and other technology built in. The sensors track the user’s movement and the other technology can vibrate or create other physical sensations that match with what the user sees and hears in the virtual world.
So, to sum it up, a virtual reality system works by using a combination of screens, speakers, sensors, controls, and other computer devices to make the user feel like they really are in the virtual world that the software has created.
A Brief Virtual Reality History
We can trace virtual reality development back to around the 1960s. But the idea for it exist even earlier than that. To help you understand how we got to where we are today, let’s look at a very brief chronology of the key events in the history of virtual reality:
The concept of virtual reality first appears in the Science Fiction short story, “Pygmalion’s Spectacles” by Stanley G Weinbaum. The story features a virtual reality system that uses goggles and holographic recordings that simulate sight, sound, smell, and touch.
Ivan Sutherland and Bob Sproull build what is generally considered to be the first virtual reality headset. The headset is so heavy and bulky that it has to be suspended from the ceiling by a large mechanical arm and the wearer must be strapped in from below.
The graphics simply displayed a wireframe room in which users could turn their head and view it at different angles. The device earned the titled “The Sword of Damocles” for how large and intimidating it was.
This decade witnesses a surge in research and development into the applications of virtual reality for gaming and entertainment. However, the technology is still too expensive to use in consumer products and is still limited to military, medical, and other professional applications.
This decade saw the biggest boom in virtual reality research and development for consumer products. This boom was caused by a surge in films and other media featuring virtual reality systems.
The Virtuality system is launched. The $73,000 multi-pod virtual reality system is intended for use in videogame arcades. It features a headset and exoskeleton gloves.
Sega releases the Sega VR-1 which is another arcade system. It featured head tracking and 3D polygon graphics. This year also represents a turning point when the technology required for virtual reality becomes more affordable.
With the technology getting cheaper, Nintendo releases the Virtual Boy, boasting 3D graphics and portability. It would be a complete failure and taken on shelves less than a year later. The failure is partly due to the high price and partly due to the fact that it caused a lot of discomfort to users.
The first virtual reality system that can connect to the internet is released.
Linden Labs attempts to develop the hardware needed to create a fully immersive 360 degree virtual reality experience. They did not succeed but would later develop the Second Life game instead.
Google introduces the Street View feature on its maps. A few years later, they add the stereoscopic 3D mode which allows users to navigate real images of the streets as if they were walking or driving along them.
Palmer Luckey builds the first prototype for the Oculus Rift, the virtual reality headset that would later become the leader in the market. This first prototype could only display 2D images and was not very comfortable to wear. But at 90 degrees, it had the widest field of vision seen in a virtual reality headset yet.
Nintendo files for a patent on the concept of using virtual reality technology to create more realistic 3D effects on a regular 2D TV. In other words, they have the exclusive rights to using a virtual reality camera placed on the TV to track the user’s location relative to the TV and reorient the view on the screen to move with the movement of the user’s head.
In the same year, Vendetta Online would become the first MMORPG (Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game) that supported the Oculus Rift—starting a trend toward more and more games being designed to support the headset.
Facebook buys Oculus VR for $2 billion. Immediately after, Sony announces Project Morpheus—the mysterious codename used for Sony’s project to develop a virtual reality headset exclusively for the PlayStation.
In the same year, Google announces Google Cardboard which is a DIY stereoscopic viewer smartphones. Users assemble what is literally a few pieces of cardboard and place their smartphone inside to use it as a headset.
HTC partners up with Valve Corporation to develop the HTC Vive, a virtual reality headset that would quickly become the primary competition for the Oculus Rift. It uses elaborate tracking technology (called Lighthouse) that involves sensors placed in all corners of your room so that the device can precisely locate your position anywhere in the room. The finished product launched in April 2016.
In the same year, the Gloveone kickstarter campaign is successfully funded which will develop gloves featuring motion tracking and Haptic (touch) feedback.
The Challenges of Virtual Reality Going Forward
Before we look at some of the exciting new ideas that the virtual reality industry is currently working on, it’s important to understand what kind of challenges they are facing and what problems need to be resolved before moving forward. Here are a few of the most important ones:
Virtual Reality Sickness
Also known as “cybersickness”, this is a problem that some users of virtual reality have experienced. The symptoms are pretty much the same as the symptoms of motion sickness and the symptoms usually set in when someone uses a virtual reality devices for a long time.
While it is not deadly by any means, people are not going to want to spend money on a device that causes this kind of discomfort. Developers will need to work on finding a way to minimizing the effects or at least providing recommended time limits.
While there is already some pretty impressive tech out there that can track bodily movements, create simulated sensory experiences, and more, it is not always very intuitive to use. Putting out a very advanced and powerful virtual reality machine may require training the end user how to operate it successfully.
So an important goal moving forward needs to be finding a way to make the technology very powerful while also simplifying the operating process so that it is more intuitive to use by consumers without extensive tech knowledge.
Uneven Technological Development
At this moment, the most advanced aspect of virtual reality technology is the visual. Devices can effectively create very realistic environments. Right behind that is audio as headphones and speakers are getting better at pitching noises in a way that makes it sound like the noises are coming from different directions (such as hearing footsteps come up behind you).
Where virtual reality tech is still lagging is
ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT
- 1) Body tracking (sensors that can accurately recognize the location and position of your head, limbs, and torso);
- 2) User input (being able to interact with and influence the virtual environment in ways more advanced than just walking around and looking);
- 3) Haptics (tech that can simulate the sensation of touch). These 3 are lagging because they are much, much more challenging to develop than visual or audio stimulus—which tech has been doing for decades already. So future development is going to have to focus on working out the kinks and bringing these other elements of virtual reality up to speed in order for it to realize its full potential.
Risks While Navigating Virtual Reality
When a user is fully immersed in a virtual world, they are cut off from sensing the actual world around them. If that user is not confined to a certain area, they could end up getting themselves hurt in the real world as they move around in response to the virtual world.
Just imagine someone wearing a virtual reality headset walking around their home. If they aren’t careful, they could accidentally end up falling down a set of stairs, tripping over furniture, and other similar accidents.
Systems that use a confined space like an omnidirectional treadmill will be safer but also more expensive. So developers will need to find a way to prevent users from painful and dangerous accidents.
The Future of Virtual Reality
At the moment, developers are working hard to overcome the challenges we talked about above. All of time and money is being invested into improving the other aspects of virtual reality as well as making it a safer and more enjoyable experience for users. We are seeing three key technological trends:
- Virtual reality is becoming more physical. Developers are not only trying to improve body tracking, Haptics, and input, they are also trying to make it possible to get rid of the controller so that, in a game of virtual golf, you could just hold an actual golf club so the weight is correct (or hold nothing at all). In a virtual dance studio, you could glide through each step without holding a clunky controller in your hand.
- 2) Virtual reality is becoming more tactile. Developers hope to simulate more than just sight and sound. They are working on simulating touch and smell as well. They want to give you a device that lets you feel the wind on your face when you are standing on the virtual cliffs of Scotland. They want you to be able to smell the fresh scent of pine when you explore a virtual forest. Basically, they want to simulate as many aspects of reality as possible.
- Virtual reality development is becoming an industry wide effort. Because of the many challenges and the complexity of the virtual reality software and technology required, no single company will be able to solve all of the problems on their own. Instead, what we are seeing is a push toward collective effort and collaboration.
- Companies are each focusing on specific problems and then putting out devices that are compatible with devices from other companies. This is a best case scenario for us consumers because it means developments will happen faster and be more even and well-rounded.
Another development that the virtual reality industry is working toward is creating wireless headsets that offer the same power and functionality as the wired ones that exist on the market today.
At the moment, the best virtual reality goggles are the ones that are connected by a hard wire to your computer. The hard wire is simply necessary in order to provide the power such an advanced headset needs.
Unfortunately, wireless technology is lagging far, far behind virtual reality technology so it may be a long time before we see an effective wireless headset worth buying. But it is on the horizon!
Virtual Reality Applications
Virtual reality is an exciting industry that has applications in many different fields. In some cases, fields like medicine and military have been using different kinds of virtual reality systems for decades already. Others still haven’t really explored the possibilities but there is near endless potential.
In this section, we’ll take a look at some of the past, present, and possible future applications in 6 different areas—medicine, education, military, gaming & entertainment, business, and everyday life.
- Everyday Life
Doctors, researchers, and patients alike all benefit from the use of virtual reality in the field of medicine. For example, therapists can use a virtual reality system to immerse their patients in a realistic virtual world where they can face their fears and anxieties in a safe and controlled environment. It’s being used in a similar way to help treat PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder).
It may also have some potential as a pain management tool. For patients going through physical therapy, sometimes basic movements can be excruciatingly painful. By immersing that patient in a virtual world, their senses will be so overwhelmed, the pain can be lessened. Studies have shown some success with this for helping burn victims recover.
For patients recovering from a stroke other illness which has caused some brain damage, virtual reality can help them recover their motor skills and movement more quickly. By immersing the patient in a virtual game that encourages them to perform the movements they need to re-learn, they are more motivated and more engaged in their physical therapy.
Some universities are now adopting surgery simulators that allow their medical students to practice surgery on virtual bodies. Some of these simulators even include haptic (touch) feedback and real 3D images and scans.
Virtual reality can help doctors and researchers train better and learn more about their craft. And at the same time, it can be used to help make patients more comfortable and recover more quickly.
The applications of virtual reality in education are only just beginning to be explored. But the future looks very bright here. There are already virtual reality systems that can allow teachers to take their students on field trips that would be impossible in real life.
Imagine being a child and learning about the coral reef or different species living in the ocean by strapping on a headset and going swimming with them. Imagine learning about life in ancient Greece by putting on a headset and walking around the ancient ruins before they were ruins.
Virtual reality systems can also allow teachers to transform their classroom into a different place. Turn on the projector and suddenly the classroom has now become the inside of an actual space station.
These things are already possible although they are still too expensive to make them standard educational tools across all schools. As the technology continues to get more advanced and more affordable, teachers will be able to engage their students in ways that were never possible before.
And this is great news because the human brain remembers only about 20% of what you read and hear but it remembers as much as 90% of what you do. So by allowing students to actively move around and experience the lesson material, they are going to actually be able to remember what they learn for the rest of their lives.
The military is one of the early adopters of virtual reality technology. They have been using to train pilots through flight simulation as well as to give soldiers simulated combat training before they send them into a real battle zone.
Flight simulators have existed since the 30s but we wouldn’t truly consider these early machines virtual reality systems. Later on, though, flight simulators could recreate a virtual world that followed the exact same laws of physics so that a pilot in training could get a very accurate simulated experience of what it’s actually like to fly a plane before taking the risk of flying an actual plane.
Combat simulators immerse soldiers in a simulated but very realistic combat zone. This allows them to train their skills and get used to thinking and acting quickly in a high pressure situation.
But virtual reality isn’t just for training. The military also uses telepresence. In order to minimize exposure to dangerous situations, they have developed “smart weapons.” These are weapons that can be controlled remotely by a soldier sitting in front of a screen and controls.
So they can see and hear everything around the weapon but they are far enough away that they aren’t directly under fire. Not only is this safe for the soldier, it’s better for tactics. When you’re not under immediate threat, you are calm enough to make more calculated and strategic decisions. Basically, virtual reality is helping to make the military safe and more effective.
Gaming & Entertainment
Games are one of the more fun applications of virtual reality. The major appeal of games is that they are an interactive kind of entertainment. With a TV show, all you do is sit and watch. With a game, you are actively engaged and making decisions.
Virtual reality lets you take that one step further by totally immersing yourself in the world of the game. We are already seeing systems like the Nintendo Wii where you hold a controller that is connected to a sensor. This allows you to move around as if you were in the game. You swing the controller like you would swing a golf club or you wield it like an actual sword.
There are also more and more games that are becoming compatible with virtual reality headsets like the Oculus Rift or the HTC Vive. This allows you to transform a regular game into an immersive virtual reality experience.
Beyond games, virtual reality is also making its way into sports and movie theaters. Virtual reality sports let you play sports from the comfort of your living room. Soon the technology will be advanced enough that you can actually get a real workout while inside the virtual world.
But if you’re not up for the workout, there’s also a new trend toward watching sports in virtual reality. A 360 degree camera captures the game and transmits it to your virtual reality headset so that you can watch the game in real time as if you were standing right there on the field. This is still in an experimental stage but two networks already offered a beta version of it for the 2016 Summer Olympics so it’s coming soon!
If that wasn’t exciting enough, some companies are experimenting with smart wearables that the players will wear during the game so that you can watch (and hear) the game from your favorite player’s perspective—all while seeing up to date stats on their health and performance!
Finally, you can already enjoy some virtual reality movies. A virtual reality movie allows you to wear a headset and look around a full 360 degrees. You see and hear everything in the film as if you were actually standing there in the middle of the action!
Businesses can also benefit greatly from adopting virtual reality technology. One of the most popular uses at the moment is in developing prototypes. Virtual reality and augmented reality both can help you visualize what you want to build in ways that you never could do before. Your prototype will literally come to life.
Imagine having that capability when speaking with your investors? And in the future, advanced virtual reality can actually let you simulate complex strategy and decision. One company is developing a virtual world so complex and realistic that it includes the government policy and as much data as possible about real market conditions and consumer trends.
Launch your product in this virtual simulation of the real world to get an idea of how it will actually perform in a real launch!
At the consumer end, you’ll be able to put your customers an immersive environment that lets them feel and experience your product. You can also use this for creative marketing campaigns that will engage your audience in ways that have never been done before.
Everyday Practical Uses
Virtual reality apps and augmented reality apps are already out there today. Whether it’s augmented reality smartphone games or an app that lets you wander through a museum with all the information, history, and data about each object at your fingertips, virtual reality has already made its way into our everyday lives.
In the future, virtual reality apps are going to become more and more integrated into our daily lives. After a stressful day at work, you could come home, put on your virtual reality headset and relax on a warm beach in Hawaii.
Perhaps you’d enjoy an augmented reality app that allows you to look at food items in a grocery store and have a list of possible recipes using that ingredient and what you already have at home displayed for you.
Developers are coming up with new ideas everyday so virtual reality is definitely going to become more and more integrated into our daily lives in the next few years. The potential to help us become healthier, happier, and more engaged is just too good to ignore!
A Quick Note on Augmented Reality vs Virtual Reality
When the conversation moves to the topic of virtual reality, it’s very likely that augmented reality will be mentioned also. These two terms are not synonyms. They refer to similar but also very different technologies and ways of dealing with reality.
You already know what virtual reality it is. The virtual reality definition includes any device or equipment that tries to simulate and replace reality. The more you can be cut off from the actual real world, the more immersive and complete the virtual reality experience.
That’s why there is so much effort to build virtual reality devices like the headset and gloves that we talked about earlier. These are meant to create an artificial experience that feels as close to real as possible and in order to do that it has to block your senses from what is actually real by blocking your vision, blocking out outside sound, and so on.
So if that’s what virtual reality tries to do, then where does augmented reality come in? The answer is in the name. It attempts to augment reality. In other words, it uses devices that are capable of perceiving the actual real world around you (like your smartphone with its already built-in camera, speaker and motion sensors, for example) and uses software to enhance that reality by adding to it.
There are more and more apps coming out today that use some form of augmented reality technology. It can be used in games or to create more immersive experiences of places like museums and historical sites.
So the key difference between virtual reality and augmented reality is that augmented reality works with reality and simply builds on top of it by adding virtual features that aren’t really there. Meanwhile, virtual reality technology doesn’t work with actual reality at all, instead, it tries to completely replace it with a simulation.
Why You Should Pay Attention to Augmented Reality & Virtual Reality Development
The truth is, we aren’t all so easily excited about the latest and greatest in technological developments. Some of us find tech convenient—we do love our smartphones!—but we’re just not that into keeping up with the latest gadgets.
But even if that sounds like you, virtual reality and augmented reality are still things you want to be aware of. As technology advances, they will both become bigger parts of our daily lives and they both present us with some exciting opportunities. Plus, you have to admit it is pretty cool.
Here are a few of the reasons that you should learn more about what’s going on in the world of virtual reality and augmented reality:
Exciting Investment Opportunities
As an investor, your ultimate goal is to maximize profit while minimizing risk. You want an investment that has a lot of potential to grow and become a secure, dependable investment. Imagine getting in on the ground floor at Google or Apple when they first launched?
Virtual reality and augmented reality are extremely high growth markets. Yes, there is some risk as you aren’t quite sure yet which companies are going to stick around for the long haul. But if you do your research and follow the market news and trends closely, you definitely have the opportunity to get in on the ground floor and reap some wildly impressive benefits later on.
New Developments & Applications Relevant to Your Life
When the cellphone first came out, not everyone got on board right away. At the beginning, it was little more than a substitute for your landline that could be carried with you outside of the home. That was cool but it wasn’t a convenience everybody needed.
But the more it developed and the more it could do, the more people realized that it could be an important tool in their lives. It became more than just a phone. It became a tool to help you navigate, a conveniently portable camera, a music playing device, a way to read news, check your email, and so much more. No matter who you are, a smartphone can make your life so much easier.
Right now, we are at the early stages of real, effective virtual reality and augmented reality technology. At the moment, consumer applications are mostly just cool and can also be of some limited practical use.
But as this technology gets better and better, we’re going to start to see it becoming more and more integrated into daily lives. Soon, it will go the way of the smartphone. That is, it will become an indispensable tool for modern life.
Super Fun & Cool Developments
If there is a bit of a tech geek inside of you, this is one of the most exciting fields you could be paying attention to. Whether you’re interested in its medical applications, its educational applications, or even just the prospect of seeing better and better virtual reality games, there’s going to be so much to look forward to in the next few years.
Ensure Your Business Is on the Cutting Edge
When a new technology comes out that could make your business run more efficiently, cut costs, or attract more business, being one of the early adopters is absolutely essential. In the coming years, virtual and augmented reality are going to have a lot of potential applications in business including things like employee training, coordinating meetings with remote employees, and enhancing your customer’s experience.
A real estate agency might offer immersive, virtual tours of homes to their customers. An editor in chief at a newspaper might call an emergency staff meeting with all of his correspondents scattered around the globe. A beauty salon might allow clients to “try on” different hairstyles or makeup options before making their decision.
There’s a lot of really innovative applications in business but once a trend catches on, you’ll have already missed out on the chance to give your business an edge and establish yourself as a pioneer and forward-thinker. Don’t play catch up with your competitors. Instead, become the standard that your competitors have to catch up to.
The technology, how it’s used, and its potential future applications all make virtual reality an extremely exciting field with a bright future. Whether you’re a tech geek or not, you have to admit the things that virtual reality makes possible are super cool. And as the technology continues to improve, the possibilities will become greater and greater.
There are so many reasons to stay on top of the news coming from this area. Whether you’re just an avid tech geek, a gamer looking for the latest device, or an investor in search of the next great idea to invest your money in, the virtual reality market is going to be one that you really want to pay close attention to.