What comes to your mind when you hear the words virtual reality (VR)? Do you imagine someone wearing a big helmet attached to a computer with a thick cable and joysticks in their hands? Or do you just pull a face at the term wishing it would just go away?
If the last applies to you, you’re likely a computer geek or so, many of whom now avoid the words virtual reality even while they work on technologies, most of which are associated with VR. Presently, you’re more likely to hear someone use the words virtual environment (VE) to refer to what the masses know as virtual reality. However, I will be using these terms interchangeably throughout the article.
For years, VR technology remained out of the public eye. Almost all developments focused on vehicle simulations until the 1980s! Then in 1984, a computer scientist named Michael McGreevy began to experiment with VR technology as a way to advance human–computer interface (HCI) designs. HCI still plays a big role in VR research, and moreover it lead to the media picking up on the idea of VR a few years later. A big vote of thanks to Michael McGreevy!
So what exactly do we have here?
Whether virtual reality or environment, the concept remains the same i.e. using some computer technology to create a simulated, 3-Dimensional world that a user can manipulate and explore while feeling as if he/she is in that world. As you can imagine, it enables people to deal with information more easily. VR provides a different way to see and experience information- a dynamic and immediate one. Like a computer game, user’s joystick motions are tracked and the objects in the game are moved according to those movements simultaneously. In the same way, a simulated, 3-Dimensional world is created around the user in which one could interact with objects, people and environments. Typically, 3D life-sized images with audio support are presented around the user and the perspective is modified in accordance with the user’s input (generally head or eye movements). Many devices along with the computers are used to create a virtual environment.
To enter in a VE, a user has to wear special gloves, earphones and goggles, all of which send their output to the computer systems. Scientists and engineers have designed dozens of devices and applications to achieve and improve the concept of virtual environment.
There have been different opinions as to what precisely constitutes to a VR experience, but we have generalized some basic requirements for your understanding, which are-
- 3-Dimensional images that appear to be life/real-sized from the user’s perspective.
- The ability to track the user’s motions- head and eye movements.
- Correspondingly adjust the images on the user’s display to reflect the change in sight.
(A set of VR equipments essential to experience virtual environment)
After giving an insight into the world of VE, the question that is bubbling right now is this one-
How does VR actually work?
A number of phenomena are required to elaborate the whole complex design and functioning of Virtual Reality-
In a virtual environment, a user experiences immersion, in other words, the feeling of being inside or a part of that world. He is also able to interact with his environment in meaningful ways. Such combination of the sense of immersion and interactivity is what one calls Telepresence. Computer scientist and genius Jonathan Steuer defined it as- “The extent to which one feels present in the mediated environment, rather than in the immediate physical environment.” An effective VE causes one to become unaware of your real surroundings and focus on one’s existence inside the VE.
The two main components of immersion are the Depth of Information and Breadth of Information. As per Steuer, Depth of information refers to the amount and quality of data in the signals a user is receiving while interacting in a virtual environment. Breadth of information is the number of sensory dimensions which are presented simultaneously. A VE experience has a wide breadth of information if it stimulates all your senses.
(A unit of the U.S. armed forces being trained through VE experience)
The Virtual Reality Environment
Other sensory output from the VE system must adjust in real time as a user explores the environment. For instance, if the environment incorporates 3-D sound, the user should be convinced enough that the sound’s orientation shifts as well naturally as he explores his environment. (Sensory stimulation must be consistent if a user is to feel immersed within a VE). If the VE shows a perfectly still scene, you wouldn’t expect to feel ‘gale-force’ winds. Similarly, if the VE puts you in the middle of a hurricane, you wouldn’t expect to feel gentle breezes or detect some fragrances!
The lag time between when a user makes a move and when the virtual environment reflects that move is called its Latency. Latency usually refers to the delay between the time a user turns his head or moves his eyes and the change in the point of view. However, the term can also be used for a lag in other sensory outputs. Studies with flight simulators show that humans can detect a latency of more than 50 milliseconds. When a user comes across such latency, he becomes aware of being in an artificial environment and destroys the sense of immersion and the whole motive is lost.
Users could watch a pre-recorded film while wearing a head-mounted display (HMD). That would simply mean sitting in a motion chair and watching the film as the system subjected them to various stimuli such as blowing air on them to mimic winds. Earlier, while users felt a sense of immersion, interactivity was limited to shifting their point of view by looking around. Their path was pre-determined and unalterable. As we all know, that is certainly not the case today! VR has been taken to new heights in terms of experience.
( A Virtual Reality OCULUS Headset)
A major component of VR interactivity is the VR Headset. Virtual environment systems need a medium to display images. Many systems use HMDs, which are headsets that contain two monitors, one for each eye. The images create a stereoscopic effect, giving the illusion of depth. Early HMDs used cathode ray tube (CRT) monitors, which were bulky but provided good resolution and quality, or LCD monitors, which were much cheaper but were unable to compete with the quality of CRT displays. However, LCD these days are much more advanced with improved resolution and color saturation.
There also exist VE systems which are capable of projecting images on the walls, floors and ceilings and are called Cave Automatic Virtual Environments (CAVE). CAVE displays give users a much wider view and it certainly helps in immersion. They are also capable of clubbing a group of people to share the experience at the same time! But, this technology is much more expensive and space-consuming. So for now, let’s just stick with headsets.
There is no standard control system across the VR discipline. Some of the more common forms of input devices are:
- Motion trackers/bodysuits
- Force balls/tracking balls
- Controller wands
- Voice recognition
(A high end Samsung VR Gear compatible with Note 5, S6 & S6 Edge)
Today’s programmers have been developing various computer languages and web browsers to achieve the vision of developing the internet into a three-dimensional virtual space where you will be able to navigate through virtual landscapes to access information and entertainment. Some of these include:
- Virtual Reality Modeling Language (VRML) – The earliest 3-D modeling language for the Web.
- 3DML– A 3-Dimensional modeling language where a user can visit a spot (or Web site) through most Internet browsers after installing plug-ins.
- X3D– This is the language that replaced VRML as the standard for creating VE’s in the Internet.
- Collaborative Design Activity (COLLADA)– A format used to allow file interchanges within 3-Dimensional programs.
Developing VR technology is an ongoing process that is not to see its dusk anytime soon. As far as its applications are concerned, they go as far and beyond as the eye can see. Military, gaming, archeological restoring, infra-planning are a few to name. Virtual reality has the potential to lead to new and exciting discoveries in these areas. Besides, it has a huge tendency to impact upon our day to day lives. So it would do no harm to expect more innovative use of this budding technology as it is not only becoming cheaper but also more available to the general public. Perhaps, a new way of communicating and working might be waving at us from the horizon- All because of the concepts of Virtual Reality.