[...] "A movie that gives one sight and sound. [...] taste, smell, even touch, [...]. Suppose I make it so that you are in the story, you speak to the shadows, and the shadows reply, and instead of being on a screen, the story is all about you, and you are in it. Would that be to make real a dream? [...]How? But simply! [...] (with) my magic spectacles."
This statement by the fictional character Professor Albert Ludwig, published 1935 in the short story “Pygmalion's Spectacles” by science fiction novelist Stanley G. Weinbaum, is believed to be the first comprehensive description of virtual reality. Since then writers and movie directors have taken an interest in this technology. Star Trek’s holodeck, where Enterprise crewmembers experienced computer-simulated realities and were able to interactively modify scenarios in real time is one of the most known in pop culture. Movies like “The Matrix”, “Total Recall”, or “Avatar” used the concept of virtual reality in one way or another.
With more affordable virtual reality gadgets, it is no longer a fantasy from books or movies. People now have the opportunity to experience virtual reality themselves. But what exactly is virtual reality?
Virtual reality is a three-dimensional, computer-simulated environment. It takes one’s physiology into account, while replicating real or imagined environments in real-time, simulating your physical presence, and facilitating an interaction that creates an artificial sensory experience. Augmented with wearable and haptic devices, you emerge in a virtually-created environment; known as the “sense of presence”.
All virtual reality systems work with a 3D view that changes in real-time while corresponding with your movements. The smaller the delay between the action and the system response, the better the experience.
From SciFi to Real Life
Science fiction was the initial pioneer of the VR movement, with scientists and gaming companies attempting to bring fiction into reality. Up until the late 80s few people recognized the potential of virtual reality. One of the first virtual reality head mounted displays (HMD)—“The Sword of Damocles”— was cumbersome and basic. In 1992 the first prototype CAVE (Cave Automatic Virtual Environment) was developed, a room-sized cube, in which projectors were positioned on up to six walls for an enticing atmosphere.
Because virtual reality required quite a large amount of computing power, and the technology was very expensive, it never really took hold. Until 2012 that is, when the small startup Oculus introduced the first head mounted display with a visual field of 90 degrees. Now, with many other companies developing HDMs, the technology is more affordable, therefore spreading into different industries.
Gaming and entertainment seem to be the most obvious applications for virtual reality. However the possibilities for its application are endless—from military applications, healthcare, automotive, business, research, and construction.
NASA, for example, launched the Mars 2030 program, where virtual reality will be used to simulate life on Mars. This is the best way for astronauts to understand the environment on Mars and possibly learn how to survive on the red planet. With the availability of new and affordable virtual reality equipment everyone could soon be able to explore the moon.
Surgery could also be another groundbreaking area for VR. In April 2016 a surgical procedure was filmed in 360 degrees. Students worldwide could watch the procedure as if they were performing it. VR has the potential to revolutionize the way surgeons are trained, not to mention facilitating the experimentation of new surgical techniques.
2016—The Year of Consumer-VR
2016 is the year virtual reality becomes mainstream. Major companies have seen the potential of virtual reality, including Sony, Microsoft, and Intel.
In 2016, after further development, improvements, and some tweaking, one of the most anticipated VR headsets, the Oculus Rift, has finally been released. It boasts a 90 Hz refresh rate, a 2160 x 1200 combined resolution, and 233 MPPS. Later in 2016 Oculus will add the Oculus Touch controllers for an even better VR experience.
The HTC Vive, developed by Valve and HTC for the PC-gaming platform Steam, comes with two trackpads with HD haptic feedback, and a base station for 360 degree motion tracking. A total of 70 sensors and the front-facing camera not only enables room-scale experience, where users can walk around safely within their set area, with HTC Vive also overlaying the virtual reality with real-world elements.
Facebook, who purchased Oculus a few years ago, wants to use virtual reality to discover how their users share personal experiences. Quite a few start-ups have introduced their version of a virtual social networks, in which users interact, watch movies, or play games through their avatar.
Eye-based technology with the potential to revolutionize is certainly enticing. It would enable users to navigate and select with a glance, instead of using a trackpad or controller. However, it is a challenging tech, and will probably be found in the next generation of mainstream headsets.
Needless to say, there are still quite a few choices, consumers just need to find the option that best fits their needs—and budget.
Big players as well as star-ups are building virtual environments, apps, and hardware, diversifying the technology and making it more affordable than ever. Exploring ancient cities or different planets from home might soon be commonplace. It’s still a long time away before man will get to experience the holodeck—but we are closing in.
As Product Content Translation Specialist at Mouser Electronics, Andréa translates and localizes blog posts, product descriptions, and marketing materials into German. Andréa discovered her enthusiasm for new gadgets and technologies while being a Managing Editor, reviewing cameras. Working as a PR and Content Manager for a wearable tech company, and writing articles about the coolest new gadgets, this enthusiasm grew even more. Andréa also enjoys science fiction and gaming.
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