Virtual Insanity

It’s been 85 years since virtual reality was first depicted in the cinema, and the prospect of being able to enter an artificial world has intrigued mankind ever since. In the 1950s, moviegoers were given multisensory devices to provide additional stimulation as a movie progressed. In the 1980s, it became possible to purchase VR-ready goggles and gloves. And the immersive subculture recently depicted in the movie Ready Player One isn’t far away, now companies like Google and HTC are investing billions of dollars in virtual technology.

A growing sector

The VR revolution has been a long time coming, but we seem to have reached critical mass. Goldman Sachs forecast virtual reality will generate more revenue than TV by 2025, while the industry should be worth $162 billion in just two years – a 20-fold increase on 2016 figures.  And VR firms are falling over themselves to provide architecture and design for virtual environments, from game deExpos with titles like “What Can VR Do For Your Business?” are pulling in attendees around the world.sign and live streaming to educational tools and training simulators.
One of the companies pushing the boundaries of VR hardware is Facebook-owned Oculus, whose Rift headset resembles the sort of bulky apparatus familiar to early adopters in any industry. Similar to the brick-shaped mobile phones of the 1980s, this is clearly an evolving technology rather than a mature marketplace. Even so, the virtual revolution feels close at hand now a Rift is available at Walmart for $400. And the Rift’s technology is undeniably impressive, despite that clunky headset. It uses a camera to track head movements, while two screens display an authentically binocular panorama.
Even so, the Rift embodies a number of challenges ubiquitous throughout VR development. Firstly, it requires a Windows 10-powered PC; support for Windows 7 and 8 was recently dropped. We’re still some way from the endgame of a lightweight, standalone device. Secondly, users have to remain seated unless they purchase an expensive optional sensor; using conventional game controllers also diminishes any sense of realistic motion. And speaking of motion, nausea is a big issue due to persistent delays between movement and a visual response. Some users recommend gradually increasing exposure as a way of building up a tolerance, but being seated exacerbates the sense of disorientation. And immersion in an artificial reality certainly isn’t advisable for anxiety or claustrophobia sufferers.
Nevertheless, once these issues have been engineered out, the benefits of virtual reality could be deployed in numerous areas:

#1. Education.

British company Framestore has already developed a virtual school bus for Lockheed Martin, capable of taking pupils to Mars. The potential for immersive experiences is limited only by our imagination, bringing education to life and enabling students of all ages to learn in ways they won’t forget.

#2. Training.

Military pilots are currently trained to use the new F-35 fighter jet in a hemispherical dome containing 16 HD projectors and a three-way moving platform. The same sense of fear and adrenaline could easily be created for a fraction of the cost with a full HD VR headset and a chair capable of generating haptic feedback.

#3. Live events.

It’s already possible to experience sporting events in VR to a limited degree, and this sort of innovation is growing fast. Imagine a scenario where sports fans get to experience the immersive atmosphere of a full stadium from thousands of miles away, as opposed to passively watching it on a screen.

#4. Marketing.

VR’s development is being driven by marketers who recognize the sales benefits of interactive demonstrations. One example might include a property developer letting buyers ‘walk’ through a forthcoming apartment complex. There will also be boundless scope for VR across the fashion, travel and retail sectors.

#5. Socializing.

Group chats will seem small beer when we can join a pal on a deserted island for a chat, where body language and even facial expressions are on show. It’ll be possible to undertake virtual experiences with friends and associates from around the world, visiting other planets and time periods together.

#6. Health.

Virtual reality simulators could help people with disabilities to practice certain movements or develop key motor skills. Great excitement surrounds VR’s potential for treating conditions like autism and low vision, while it should enable healthcare trainees to ‘join in’ pioneering surgery wherever they happen to be studying.
At the same time, it’s important to recognize the VR revolution isn’t going to change every aspect of our lives. It’s always likely to be audiovisually augmented by an element of touch – smell and taste are beyond the scope of any existing VR project. And it should always be used to augment (rather than replace) human interaction and real-life experiences. Nonetheless, there’s a great deal to be excited about as the virtual reality sector matures and evolves.

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