What is Virtual Reality

“A display connected to a digital computer gives us a chance to gain familiarity with concepts not realizable in the physical world. It is a looking glass into a mathematical wonderland.”

When computing pioneer Ivan Sutherland wrote those words in 1965’s “The Ultimate Display,” he was suggesting a future in which we could immerse our senses into other worlds, both real and imagined, with the aid of computers. Given sufficient data processing power, the ultimate goal would be for virtual reality to be indistinguishable from our own.

And in the course of one lifetime, computer technology has advanced to the point where that level of immersion is almost within our grasp.

What is virtual reality? For the casual reader, the term might conjure images of films like The Matrix (or depending on your age, The Lawnmower Man). However, the applications for virtual reality technology go far beyond entertainment.

What is Virtual Reality?

Sometimes called immersive multimedia, virtual reality digitally replicates or simulates an environment. The most prevalent ways people experience these virtual environments is through sight and sound, but some VR systems include tactile feedback, and even smell.

With input devices like VR headsets, data-gathering gloves, and even omnidirectional treadmills, VR aims to enable the user to interact with a virtual environment in real time, through the same motions and gestures with which we manipulate the real world.

The Equipment

Most people will recognize a VR headset from movies and television. A number of products exist on the market, but most use two LCD monitors (one for each eye) to create a sense of depth. As the user moves his or her head, the image displayed through the headset adjusts accordingly to create a feeling of immersion.

Sophisticated headsets like the Oculus Rift, to be released in 2016, use an external motion tracking system (called “Constellation”) that tracks infrared dots on the headset, which can detect certain motions like leaning or crouching.

On the other end of the spectrum, inexpensive platforms like Google Cardboard seek to make virtual reality technology more accessible to the masses. A literal cardboard frame holds the user’s smartphone, and a program splits the screen into two images and provides barrel distortion. Magnets and the phone’s compass sensor track the user’s head movements to adjust the image.

A number of other input devices allow the user to further manipulate the environment. Moving through the environment can be accomplished on a treadmill, or with hand-held controllers, trackballs, or through eye tracking. Data gloves facilitate tactile sensing and manipulation, while motion trackers and specialized suits can track the user’s physical movements to translate into the environment.

How Virtual Reality is Applied

While VR is expanding the options and appeal for gaming, the practical applications of the technology are growing daily.

From the early days of the flight simulator, the military and other organizations have used VR systems to immerse pilots, soldiers, police officers, and medical personnel into virtual representations of real-life scenarios, allowing them to train without deadly consequences.

In the private sector, companies like YouVisit have harnessed the technology to produce immersive virtual experiences of colleges and universities, hotels, real estate, and travel destinations, providing clients with a powerful marketing tool to attract customers to their location.

What’s in Store?

As virtual reality technology becomes more powerful and readily available, the applications for its use will continue to grow. Like other technologies before it, advances in processing power and miniaturization should make the hardware less intrusive, increasing the user’s sense of immersion.

Future marine biologists will be able to remotely swim the ocean’s depths. Surgeons in San Francisco will be able to perform heart transplants on patients in Beijing. Chemists and physicists will step between molecules, or theorize distant galaxies.

Considering the level to which social media and portable devices have changed the way we connect, explore, and work, there’s no telling what innovations are in store as virtual reality becomes more and more a part of our daily lives.