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What is Virtual Reality ?

What is Virtual Reality, how did it come about and what are its different types and applications today?

Our blog takes a look at what VR stands for, its brief history, types, applications and the challenges it poses

Sep 23, 2021    By Team YoungWonks *

What is Virtual Reality aka VR? This term has been regularly in the news for quite some time now; the latest being Facebook launching its VR remote work app, Horizon Workrooms. In this blog we shall take a close look at what VR means, its brief history and its varied applications and challenges today. 

 

What is Virtual Reality?

The word ‘virtual’ was initially used to refer to anything in essence or effect, but not actually or in fact. That changed in the late 1950s, when the term began to be used in the computer sense where it meant anything that didn’t exist physically but appeared to be so thanks to software.  

So when you look at the term Virtual Reality, the two words effectively point at anything that is close to reality. Today, this roughly translates to reality emulation. This explains why Virtual Reality (VR) has come to represent simulated environments / experiences. And while simulation typically refers to the imitation of the operation of a real-world process or system over time, in the context of VR, the simulated experience could be similar to or completely different from the real world.

What is interesting about VR is how it syncs up with our perception of things / experiences. It is our senses that dictate to us what is reality and what is not. So our experience of reality is essentially the result of our senses soaking in information and our brains processing that information. So if one’s senses were to receive made-up information, our perceived reality would include that too. It may not be real information but it now seems so, thus making it a ‘virtual reality’. Thus, VR now involves exposing our senses with a computer generated virtual space that we can explore in some manner.

In technical terms, Virtual Reality is the term used to refer to a three-dimensional, computer generated environment that can be explored and interacted with by a person. That person becomes part of this virtual world or is immersed within this environment and is able to manipulate virtual objects or perform a series of actions within this environment. This VR is experienced through the use of electronic devices, such as special glasses with a screen or gloves with sensors. An example of virtual reality is a virtual tour. You are not actually in that place, but by using special equipment you get to explore it as if you were there; it is therefore an interactive experience.

 

History of Virtual Reality  

Filmmaker Morton Heilig is credited as a pioneer in the field of VR as he created in 1962 a prototype called the Sensorama along with five short films that engaged the senses of the audience (sight, sound, smell, and touch) in an effective manner. He also built the ‘Telesphere Mask’, a telescopic television apparatus for individual use where the viewer enjoyed a complete sensation of reality, thanks to moving three dimensional images which were possibly in colour, with 100% peripheral vision, binaural sound, scents and air breezes.

This was followed by scientist Ivan Sutherland building in 1968 the Sword of Damocles, widely considered to be the first head-mounted display (HMD) system for use in immersive simulation applications. Back then the HMD was so heavy that it had to be suspended from the ceiling. The decades that followed saw Virtual Reality devices be used for medical and military training purposes and in flight simulators plus automobile industry design.

 

Virtual Reality Today

Standard virtual reality systems use virtual reality headsets (consisting of a head-mounted display with a small screen in front of the eyes) or multi-projected environments to produce realistic images, sounds and other sensations simulating a viewer’s physical presence in a virtual environment.  Thus a person with virtual reality equipment can look around the artificial world, move around and interact with virtual features or items in this world. Virtual Reality as we know it today includes auditory and video feedback, and also other types of sensory and force feedback through haptic technology (technology that can create an experience of touch by applying forces, vibrations, or motions to the user).

An example of a VR headset would be the Oculus Rift, which was developed and manufactured by Oculus VR, a division of Facebook Inc. and released in 2016 and discontinued this year (in 2021). Some of the leading VR headsets today include Samsung Gear VR, Google Cardboard, Sony's PlayStation VR (compatible with PlayStation 4), Oculus Quest 2, Valve Index, Oculus Rift S, HTC Vive Cosmos Elite and Microsoft's HP Reverb G2. Also known for its head-mounted virtual retinal display is the US startup Magic Leap.  

 

Types of Virtual Reality

Non-immersive Virtual Reality

Non-immersive virtual reality is a type of virtual reality where one interacts with a virtual environment usually through a computer and can control some characters or activities within the experience, but the virtual environment does not directly interact with you. A computer game like Dota 2 is a good  example of non-immersive virtual reality, as you control aspects of your  character and this affects the virtual environment of the game.

 

Fully Immersive Virtual Reality

Fully immersive virtual reality is the opposite of non-immersive virtual reality. Here, the viewer would feel as if he/ she is physically a part of the virtual world and the events taking place in this world are happening to you. So what you get is a realistic virtual experience through the use of special equipment like VR glasses, gloves and body detectors fitted with sense detectors. The computer processes the data from these sensors and the virtual world reacts to it in real-time to give users with a realistic virtual experience. A good example of fully immersive virtual reality is the Virtual Gaming Zone, where people use special gear to interact with the virtual environment, and that too at the same time, even as they play with or against each other.

 

Semi-Immersive Virtual Reality

A semi-immersive virtual reality is as the name suggests, something that lies in between non-immersive and fully immersive virtual reality. With a computer screen or VR glasses, one can move around in a virtual environment but this will not be accompanied by any physical sensations to improve the experience. A virtual tour is an example of semi-immersive VR technology. This technology has become popular as people can use it to explore a place without being there physically.

 

Augmented Reality

Augmented Reality is a type of virtual reality that allows users to see the real world (usually) through a phone screen and make virtual changes to it on the screen. An example would be the mobile game application Pokémon Go. Here you turn on your phone’s camera and point it to a place where you think Pokémon will be. Your phone screen will then show the Pokémon on your screen, as if it’s in the photo’s frame. They only pop up in the environment of your screen and there’s no physical change in the area being filmed.

A step beyond AR is Mixed Reality aka MR, where additional information is added to all that is perceived by the user . In MR, the physical and virtual worlds interact, and users can interact with them as well. You can know more about AR in our blog here: https://www.youngwonks.com/blog/What-is-Augmented-Reality.

Collaborative VR

This is a type of virtual reality where users from different locations can come together in a virtual environment in the form of 3D projected characters. Examples would be Horizon Workrooms where employees’ virtual avatars get to work with one another, and the virtual environment of mobile games such PlayerUnknowns Battlegrounds (PUBG), where the players’ virtual avatars interact with each other.

 

Applications of Virtual Reality 

VR has evolved a lot more over time and is mainly used in entertainment (video games) and business (virtual meetings like ones in Horizon Workrooms) in addition to education (say, medical or military training). Shared below are key areas that use VR today. 

Gaming

The use of VR in gaming is perhaps its most popular application. There are scores of games that use VR to offer their users a heightened experience. Some of the leading VR games today are Beat Saber, Cloudlands VR Minigolf, Moss and Wipeout Omega Collection.

Entertainment & Sports 

Virtual Reality technology has been and continues to be used in the entertainment industry to enhance the movie watching experience. Disney Movies VR, for example, is known for taking users to red carpet events. Similarly, companies are also looking to improve upon the sports experience using VR. One can in fact watch the NBA, NFL, and other events in VR. This can be a great option for those who can’t travel to the venue or can’t afford tickets to watch the sports event in person. Not surprisingly, news stories and documentaries too are joining the VR bandwagon.

Automotive industry

VR helps engineers and designers experiment easily with the look and build of a vehicle before they commission expensive prototypes. It helps them make fewer prototypes thus saving their time, effort and money.

Healthcare

Healthcare professionals use virtual models as part of their prep before working on real bodies. In fact, VR is also used as part of pain relief for burn injuries and for treating mental health issues, since Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy is said to be very helpful with treating PTSD and anxiety patients. There are many other ways spending time in VR can have therapeutic benefits.

Retail

Online shopping may be convenient for the most part but that doesn’t take away from the fact that we can’t try on the clothes we like and often have to return them due to sizing / look and feel issues. This is slated to change soon thanks to body-scanning technology in VR, which will allow users to try on clothes in the virtual world to see what they would look like in person. European retailer ASOS has seen potential in this already by investing in software development company Trillenium. Similarly, eBay claims to have launched ‘the world’s first virtual reality department store in partnership with Australian retailer Myer.

Tourism

The hospitality industry is also capitalizing on VR by making possible guided virtual tours of hotels, restaurants and tourist landmarks. For instance, Thomas Cook launched its ‘Try Before You Fly’ VR experience in 2015, where customers could experience a holiday in VR before booking it. Google Expeditions is another example that comes to mind. Here, users explore the world from the comfort of their own home.

Real estate

No need to do initial rounds of scores of flats when you can do so from the comfort of your current home!  With VR, people can check out homes online initially and only view the shortlisted ones in person.

Architecture, art and design

With VR, architects can see not just what a building or space will look like but how it will feel. Homeowners too get to experience a space before it is physically built which in turn helps save time and money for both parties (the homeowner and the architect).

Similarly, VR can be used not just to create life-size artwork but to also be in it. So one can step into one’s image and come out the other side. A popular app for creating art in VR is Tiltbrush.

Education, Learning and Development

Companies and individuals are waking up to the potential of VR in the fields of education and L&D, be it for kids or for adults looking to upskill and stay relevant. VR is said to make training more accessible, cheaper, and increase learning retention levels.

Recruitment

Companies are considering using VR exercise to assess candidates as part of job interviews. For example, Lloyds Banking Group incorporated VR in its rounds back in 2017. Such virtual environments could replace assessment days and interviews themselves in the future.

Military & Policing 

Both the military and police forces are using AR and VR tools to train their personnel in simulated scenarios where they are taught to react a certain way to the visual, auditory, and physical stimuli shared in what is actually an artificial environment.

In addition to the above, VR can also be used in areas such as wellness, charity, recreation, marketing, community building, and events and workshops.


Challenges of VR 

As promising and pervasive as the appeal of VR is, it also comes with its own set of challenges. Let us look at them below. 

Virtual reality sickness

Virtual reality sickness is a major issue with VR today. It affects users when exposure to a virtual environment causes symptoms similar to those seen in motion sickness symptoms, the common ones being general discomfort, headache, stomach awareness, nausea, vomiting, pallor, sweating, fatigue, drowsiness, disorientation, and apathy.

High Pricing

Easily among the biggest roadblocks faced by VR today. Developing a VR system is an expensive affair and so are the headsets / HMDs. Prices need to come down for VR to enjoy a widespread appeal. Google has rolled out its low-cost VR platform Google Cardboard to meet this challenge.

Lack of Cutting Edge Content

Currently, there is very little compelling content that can lure people to switch to VR just to consume it. For VR to truly take off, it needs to offer better content making it worth the while for consumers.

 Lack of Mobility

Heavy HMDs and lots of cords / wires mean that VR experiences cannot be enjoyed on the go and this is a big deterrent to the growth of VR.

Insufficient Cybersecurity

Like any online device, VR headsets too are prone to cyber attacks and hence need proper cybersecurity in place.

Lack of 5G Speed

VR and AR need better internet speed for efficient performance and until 5G Internet is easily available, VR experiences won’t be their best. 

 

*Contributors: Written by Vidya Prabhu; Lead image by: Abhishek Aggarwal

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