We are on the threshold of the next big leap, one that promises to revolutionize the way we perceive all things digital. Yes, we are talking about virtual reality and the big strides it has taken to reach mass market in the recent years. The march towards this technology became apparent when social media giant Facebook announced its decision to buy Oculus VR, a leading virtual reality technology company, in 2014. Before we proceed, let’s take a look at the origins and the evolution of virtual reality.
Evolution of virtual reality
Most of our interactions in the digital world happen with a click of a button or pressing of keys. There is always a certain amount of distance and a sense of alienation that arises from the limited number of means to interact. And idea of virtual reality was conceived with an aim to bridge that gap — of that between you and the digital environment, giving you means to act as you wish in a dynamic environment.
The technology was driven by the entertainment industry, in the form of gaming and cinema but has now found applications in medical facilities, class rooms etc.
Here’s an article on how virtual reality is helping treating fear and anxiety.
The technology has been in use since the 1990s but has found mainstream appeal in the last few years, thanks to better availability hardware and software components — ones that are powerful enough to deliver a seamless and an immersive experience.
In the mid-1990s, there were a few that gaming devices that promised to deliver such an experience. The first in line were the Virtuality series of devices. Then, a series of devices from Japanese giants, Sega and Nintendo. But they failed to gather momentum.
One of the major issues was the inability of the technology to quickly track the movements, causing lag in terms of action and reaction. This led to issues like headaches, nausea and motion sickness.
Following the failure, there were no notable launches in the first decade after 2000 and well into the first half the second decade. Then Oculus Rift happened. It started as a kickstarter campaign and found a following, soon it was big enough to catch Facebook’s attention. Now, Sony has also put its hat into the ring.
In the meantime, virtual reality also made a mark in the clinical care sector. The push came when there was need for psychological assistance for U.S. service members returning with traumatic injuries from war in Iraq.
Will virtual reality gain momentum now?
To answer that question, we need to understand why it failed in the first place. In a paper, Albert Rizzo, co-author and a professor at University of Southern California, gives an explanation on the reasons for its failure.
…during these early years VR suffered from a somewhat imbalanced “expectation-to-delivery” ratio, as most who explored VR systems during that time will attest. Computers were too slow, 3D graphics were primitive, and head mounted displays (HMDs) were costly, bulky, and had limited resolution and fields of view.
However, over the last 20 years, the technology for creating VR systems has now caught up with this vision. Dramatic advances in the underlying VR-enabling technologies (e.g., computational speed, 3D graphics rendering, audio/visual/haptic displays, user interfaces/tracking, voice recognition, intelligent agents, and authoring software, etc.) have supported the creation of low-cost, yet sophisticated, immersive VR systems that are capable of running on commodity-level personal computers.
The biggest problem in the uptake of virtual reality technology is its side-effects. The technology has to be intuitive, quick, responsive and offer no harsh side-effects.
Imagine a situation where you are placed in an environment and the feedback to your actions arrives slowly compared to that of its real-world equivalent. What happens when you start moving but your environment doesn’t move at the same pace as yours? Or it moves at a much faster rate than that of your walk? It confuses the brain and leads to headache and other complications.
But with improved software and hardware, one would hope that these issues will be ironed out. Here’s a video showing the prowess of Oculus’s latest device, Rift. And, going by the initial looks, it does look like a seamless experience.
Virtual Reality Applications for the Assessment and Treatment of PTSD, by Albert Rizzo, Tanja Jovanovic, Michael J. Roy, Seth D. Norrholm, Arno Hartholt, Chris Reist, Michelle Costanzo, Barbara Rothbaum and JoAnn Difede