Immersive Virtual Reality

As the buzz surrounding virtual reality grows, everyone from technology writers and journalists to filmmakers and documentarians tout the technology’s “immersive” nature. While virtual reality experiences vary widely, all virtual reality experiences are alike in that they surround users with an interactive environment that can be navigated in different ways. This total immersion sets virtual reality apart from other forms of media by giving the audience a close-up and all-encompassing visual experience.

The Uses of Immersive VR

Virtual reality is being used to take people to places they otherwise may never visit. Film studios have used virtual reality to put audiences inside the movie worlds. Movie fans have been able to explore the worlds of “Star Wars” and “The Hunger Games,” among others. Educational videos have taken travelers to the bottom of the ocean, cities around the world, and outer space.

Documentarians are beginning to catch on to the benefits of virtual reality. A documentary virtual tour of Chernobyl is set to be released next year to mark the 30th anniversary of the nuclear disaster, and a virtual reality experience of the Apollo 11 mission are in the works. Journalists especially have taken to virtual reality technology. Several news outfits have released virtual reality video stories, taking viewers around the globe to bring faraway news stories closer to home.

Marketers have used virtual reality to showcase their brands, with Audi and Volvo offering virtual reality test drives and cruise lines like Carnival showcasing their ships and on-shore experiences. Other brands have used virtual reality to share their message, as TOMS did when it released a virtual reality video of one of its “giving trips,” during which shoes were distributed to children in impoverished countries.

The Benefits of Immersive Virtual Reality

Virtual reality tricks the brain into believing the sights and sounds inside the experience are real. In virtual reality, as users turn their heads, or in some cases move their hands, the virtual reality experiences respond with a change in gaze or body position. That connectivity causes the brain to believe the user’s senses.

On an emotional level, virtual reality creates a sense of empathy and understanding that other mediums can’t produce because of how real the experiences become in the mind of the viewer. Hearing the plight of a refugee virtually sitting next to them or watching a bomb explode on the street of a war-torn country, causes a depth of emotion for users that traditional media, like film and photographs, can’t compete with.

Immersive virtual reality also creates a connection with the experience that makes a deeper impression on the user than other forms of media. A student can interact with a molecule of water, turning it around in 360 degrees, rather than looking at a static picture in a textbook. Consumers can watch products in action, whether it’s test-driving a car, watching someone scale a mountain in outdoor gear or watching a model walk the runway in a label’s newest line.

The Future of Immersive Virtual Reality

Virtual reality developers are beginning to take immersive virtual reality beyond the sense of sight layer on other sounds, tactile sensations and even smell, and by tracking users’ movement in a more detailed way.

For an exhibition at Le Laboratoire art center in Cambridge, Mass., a Swiss artist created “Birdly,” a virtual reality installation meant to replicate the experience of a flying bird. Users strap on an Oculus Rift, lie on a board with “flappable” wings that control their virtual reality flight and feel wind blowing in their face. For a virtual reality experience of a Mount Everest climb, one company outfitted virtual reality users in fur-lined parkas and placed them in sub-zero rooms with wind blowing.

Technology developers also are looking at ways to make immersive virtual reality feel more real to the senses. The HTC Vive virtual reality device features not only a headset, but hand controllers and two laser towers that accurately track a user’s location and movement within a virtual reality environment. Researchers at the University of Maryland are working to develop virtual reality audio equipment that will more realistically track sound in relation to a visual virtual reality environment.

As both content creators and tech developers continue to find ways to enhance the immersive virtual reality experience, the result will be a virtual reality experience that engages all of the senses to help users connect with their experiences in a deeper way.