The world of gaming is eagerly watching virtual reality (VR) products, which finally seem to be delivering on their promise of creating immersive, realistic, imaginary worlds. While the initial applications for these devices seem focused around games, entertainment is only the beginning for this exciting technology. As VR gear achieves mainstream market penetration, we’ll see it put to all kinds of uses in industry, education, healthcare and many other fields as well.
Most virtual reality systems under development consist of a headset that the user wears, covering up the field of view. Images are displayed in high resolution on screens placed within the unit. The display adjusts to show changing scenes from the imaginary world as the user moves around and looks in different directions.
The current wave of VR devices got started when engineer Palmer Lucky began working on the Oculus Rift headset. While the Oculus Rift is planned to operate with PCs as a normal peripheral, Sony’s competing system, Project Morpheus, will be compatible with the PlayStation 4 game console. Microsoft has also decided to get involved with the HoloLens, which will be supported by a special version of the Windows operating system. Microsoft’s offering will feature the ability to overlay virtual elements atop the user’s normal field of vision, combining the real and the imaginary. All three of these products are expected to hit store shelves in 2016, and other companies are planning to release VR products in the near future as well.
These products build upon the experiences of similar systems from the ’90s and even earlier. Back then, graphical technology was primitive by today’s standards, and processing power was anemic. Although several VR devices, like the Nintendo Virtual Boy and the Victormaxx Cybermaxx, were released in the ’90s, they were all market failures.
Today’s units seem to hold more promise, and there’s a whole lab at Stanford devoted to exploring their use. Researchers have found that placing subjects within virtual settings where they can see the consequences of harming the natural environment causes them to act in a more eco-friendly manner for weeks afterward. Additionally, the Stanford University Virtual Human Interaction Lab has learned that employing VR to allow someone to experience what it’s like to be another person increases the feeling of empathy for others.
In the field of health care, doctors have already used this burgeoning technology to treat patients with post-traumatic stress disorder, phantom limb syndrome and a variety of social anxieties. VR simulations allow patients to confront their issues in a safe, controlled environment, which is often impossible or impractical in the real world. Vice News has broadcast coverage of protests in New York City using virtual reality equipment, and Vice Sports is producing a VR series to show ordinary people what it feels like to participate in various extreme sports. Presidential aspirant Bernie Sanders has even recorded a fundraising function in VR, allowing supporters and the curious to attend the event by remote after its conclusion.
Besides what has already been achieved, VR may be used for many cool purposes in the future. Realtors could showcase properties in three dimensions to prospective buyers from far away. Business training sessions and meetings could take place between participants in widely separated geographical locations. The professionals in architecture, home security, and home design will be able to take advantage of VR to gauge the effects of proposed construction, design and renovation work before a single hammer is lifted.
Those who eschew virtual reality as merely a gaming accessory are being extremely shortsighted. As existing products are refined and new models hit the scene, we may reach a point where virtual environments are practically indistinguishable from real ones. The educational, corporate, medical, and other uses for VR are already numerous and are likely to expand greatly in the coming years.