March 12, 2021

The Future of Virtual Reality is Now

The future of Virtual Reality by Ian Ford

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The history of Virtual Reality and how it is shaping the future

Some technologies, when they come along, make us sit up and take notice. We look at them and despite their flaws, we see potential beyond what they are capable of right now. These rose-tinted glasses can often lead to an over-abundance of enthusiasm for a product that never finds its feet. But sometimes a technology rolls with the punches to survive an onslaught of negativity and fulfil its destiny.

I would put VR technology into this bracket. After years of promise, it hit the mainstream in the 1990s with such fanfare that Hollywood dedicated blockbusters to a VR future (anybody remember Lawnmower Man?). But with the technological landscape lacking and expectations flying way too high, it wasn’t long before VR descended into a dizzying pipedream for enthusiasts with little hope of useful mainstream applications.

So, it disappeared and slunk around the edges of gaming tech and other niche markets for a few years. But it didn’t go away. It hung in there and waited for the explosion in technology it needed to realise its potential. Well, that explosion is upon us and the future of VR is looking incredibly bright indeed.

What exactly is Virtual Reality?

Sony’s PlayStation VR
Sony’s PlayStation VR

VR is an acronym that stands for Virtual Reality. It describes any technology that immerses the audience completely in a world that is created artificially. The Merriam Webster Dictionary describes VR as:

“An artificial environment which is experienced through sensory stimuli (such as sights and sounds) provided by a computer and in which one’s actions partially determine what happens in the environment.”

Virtual Reality uses computer technology to create a simulated environment around the user. Unlike traditional computer interfaces, VR places the user inside the experience. They are surrounded by it and in effect part of it. With VR the user is immersed inside the simulation and can interact with the artificial world in 3D.

VR systems try to simulate as many of the human senses as possible. A user’s vision will be encompassed by a VR headset and they will hear sounds from the artificial world they inhabit. Their hands will hold controllers that simulate touch and some VR experiences even release smells. By simulating the senses VR fools the mind into believing the artificial world is real. This can give a greater sense of immersion and opens up a world of applications beyond standard technology.

The Origins of Virtual Reality

How people in the 1950s saw the future of Virtual Reality
How people in the 1950s saw the future of VR

VR has been around for more years than you probably realise. Let’s take a trip back in time.

The First VR Experience: Panoramic Paintings

Bear with me on this. If we look at the idea behind VR — the ability to create an illusion that we are somewhere we are not, then the 360-degree panoramic paintings and murals of the early 19th century are a clear forerunner of the technology. The primary purpose of these paintings was to fill the viewer’s entire field of vision and draw them into a scene that they were not part of. Indeed in 1838, Charles Wheatstone used stereoscopic paintings to demonstrate how the brain processed two different images from each eye into a single three-dimensional picture. He used this to show how 2D images can create an immersive 3D experience.

The Fiction Behind the Science

Pygmallion’s Spectacles
Pygmallion’s Spectacles

During the early part of the 20th century, science fiction stories became increasingly popular as we looked to technology and the stars for inspiration. Stanley G. Weinbaum in the 1930s book Pygmalion’s Spectacles (source: atomicdesign.design) wrote about a pair of goggles that let the wearer experience a fictional world through holographics. The spectacles included a way to simulate smell, taste and touch as well as vision making them an immersive experience just like modern VR headsets.

The First VR Experience: Morton Heilig’s Sensorama

Morton Heilig’s Sensorama
Morton Heilig’s Sensorama

Cinematographer Morton Heilig developed the first true VR experience in the 1950s (source: affinityvr.com). The device, called Sensorama, was an arcade-style theatre cabinet that included a range of technologies that simulated all the human senses. This included a stereoscopic display for sight, stereo speakers for sound, a smell generator for smell, and a vibrating chair for touch. His device, while not perfect, led to an explosion of other VR technologies during the 1960s and 1970s and is in many ways the forerunner of the modern VR headset.

Virtual Reality: The First Lull

As time went by, VR technology drifted away from the mainstream and while more and more innovations were being made, they were mainly at Universities where VR was being used as a research tool with applications that were less than satisfactory.

Flight simulators began to crop up and other training simulators. But with technology too rudimentary to be functional, the idea of a VR future was fading away. The lack of computing power was holding back VR’s potential and it stopped being a vision of the future and became a gimmick with limited real-world applications.

NASA and Gaming: The First Explosion of VR

Nintendo’s Power Glove
Nintendo’s Power Glove

In 1989 NASA created a VR simulator to train astronauts called Project VIEW (source: NASA). The VIEW technology bears a striking resemblance to modern-day VR headsets and included glove controllers. Interestingly, the technology behind VIEW inspired video game companies to look into VR technology starting with Nintendo and the release of their Power Glove.

By 1991 virtual reality gaming machines were cropping up in arcades across the globe. The headsets combined with glove controllers and other technology created a truly immersive experience for gamers. Lawnmower Man hit the cinemas a year later and the concept of virtual reality began to spread to a wider audience. Both SEGA and Nintendo jumped on the VR bandwagon with their home VR gaming technology. And while gaming may not have been at the forefront of ideas for VR tech when it was devised, it allowed it to gain a popularity it had never seen before.

Unfortunately, this boom wouldn’t last. A lack of processing power meant VR images were rudimentary at best, ruining the immersive aspect of the technology. People became frustrated by the tech and it drifted out of the spotlight once more.

Gaming Part 2: The Second Explosion of VR

Oculus Quest 2
Oculus Quest 2

While VR technology didn’t disappear between the mid-90s and the early 2010s, it’s applications became severely limited by the lack of technological firepower. But by the late noughties, PCs were seeing an explosion in power and a reduction in price that allowed VR to create experiences unlike anything seen before. VR gaming began to explode again with companies like Sony and Oculus with the Quest taking the lead. The push into gaming was once again in full flow and the competition to create the most immersive interactive gaming experience began.

How Virtual Reality is being used in the modern world

Pew Pew: Virtual Reality and the military
Pew Pew: VR and the military

VR technology is now more powerful and cheaper to make than ever before. This makes it a viable option for many real-world applications. Let’s look at a few in detail.

VR and Gaming

We spoke about VR and gaming above, but it is a real growth area for the technology. Gaming is well suited to VR because it is a medium reliant on immersion. Current VR technology is great at pulling players into worlds and allowing them to experience situations in a way they have never seen before.

VR and the Military

The military has adopted virtual reality as a way of training recruits. The immersive aspect of VR allows soldiers to be placed in environments that cannot be simulated in the real-world. Whether it be combat drills, flying planes, or piloting boats, VR allows unparalleled immersion (source: BBC).

VR and Sport

VR is being used by coaches and players to train more efficiently across a wide range of sports. It allows athletes to experience certain situations repeatedly allowing them to see how they can improve each time. As a training tool, it helps them analyse their athletic performance and analyse technique.

For sports viewers, VR is beginning to be used by many broadcasters to enhance the viewing experience. Games are streamed in virtual reality allowing users to ‘attend’ sporting events regardless of location.

VR and Medicine

The interactive nature of VR makes it a great training tool for doctors, dentists, and nurses. It allows them to experience medical situations without the risk of inflicting harm. Many medical teaching establishments now use VR as a teaching tool (source: VRCover).

VR and Education

VR use as an educational tool doesn’t stop with military and medical applications. Schools across the world have adopted VR technology to enhance the student experience and create an immersive learning environment. Research has found that VR is great for allowing children to practise social skills. This has proven especially useful for those with Autism. Technology company Floreo (source: Forbes), have created virtual reality scenarios allowing children to practise skills like making eye contact and reacting to social interactions.

How future Virtual Reality technology is going to revolutionise what we do

Mixed Reality: The future of Virtual Reality?
Mixed Reality: The future of VR?

The current applications for VR are only the tip of the iceberg. The explosion in high powered and cheap computing technology is only going to allow VR to move into more and more practical applications over time. Headsets will become more powerful and the experiences they provide more immersive.

The boom in VR gaming is expected to continue, with Sony announcing in the past few weeks that they have a new VR headset in the works for their incredibly powerful PlayStation 5 console (source: Daily Mail).

Extended and Augmented Reality is going to explode allowing mixed reality experiences. This will make big waves in education and military training where mixing artificial environments with the real world opens up a realm of opportunities.

With remote learning becoming the norm during the COVID-19 outbreak, many companies are looking at how the teaching experience can be enhanced through virtual reality. It may be that, in the future, the classroom experience can be simulated entirely in virtual reality.

Immersion is also set to be enhanced with the creation of new technology. Tesla has created the Teslasuit that allows for total body haptic feedback. In other words, you will be able to feel what is happening to you in the virtual world. The suit is already being used by NASA to train astronauts (source: The Verge).

All in all, the future of VR is brighter than ever and with more realistic and immersive experiences around the corner, we may find the virtual worlds it creates are something we visit far more often.

Ian Ford

Maths teacher, author, driving instructor, gamer, film buff, comedian, eco-warrior, gigolo, prime minister, and fantasist.

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