Virtual Reality: The Future is Coming

Virtual Reality technology involves rendering an immersive 3D computer generated environment that the user can interact with and explore. This is achieved through a head-mounted display and additional sensory experiences can be given to the user through audio and video feeds. The user is allowed to interact with objects inside the environment in real time, and this can be aided through a physical hand held controller or a motion detection sensor, not unlike Microsoft’s Kinect.

So what’s all the fuss about? Well, the applications for such technology really do stretch only as far as the imagination!

Several industries, from the obvious gaming possibilities, through to architecture, military and medical applications, could benefit enormously from VR technology.

Imagine being able to put on a headset and see a 3D model of the building you’re designing as an architect? Or having the opportunity to practice surgery on a 3D human model before having to experience it in real life? Aside from the potential for multi-player gaming to explode even more as a worldwide phenomenon, the training applications for virtual reality tech could make vocational education far more immersive.

As for the gaming aspect itself, in May 2014, Samuel Gibbs wrote an article for The Guardian on Sony’s Morpheus project and stated that, “In March, the independent manufacturer of a forthcoming VR gaming headset, the Oculus Rift, was bought by Facebook for $2bn. Later that month, Brendan Iribe, the Oculus CEO, claimed that the two companies would one day build an online multiplayer virtual reality game for one billion players.

Imagine putting on a headset and physically appear to be in a completely other world interacting with people on a global scale.

The experience has always been one that gamers like me have dreamt of for years.

But what could be the consequences of such a technology being made available commercially? How would it affect our interaction with other humans daily? Could we end up with an entire generation of people so fascinated with a virtual world they forget about the real one? This may seem a farfetched and implausible concept but ask yourself, how would you react? We’re all guilty of spending too much time on our smartphones these days, especially on social media such as Facebook, WhatsApp or Snapchat, so how many of us can actually say that we definitely wouldn’t get too immersed in such a technology or even addicted? Any company wishing to market such an overwhelming experience should be careful to put limitations on the length a player can play for, otherwise we could end up with players forgetting they’ve been on for an extreme amount of time, as this is already a problem in the existing gaming community.

An 18 year old from Taiwan died after doing a marathon on Diablo III for 40 hours in August 2012 and authorities noted that the length of sitting still could have caused a fatal blood clot.

In February 2012, a gamer was found dead slumped over with his hands on his keyboard after playing League of Legends for 23 hours straight.

The cause of death was reported as cardiac arrest. It must be noted that these deaths are from extreme circumstances, but it does give weight to the rise of game addiction and the possibilities for abuse of any potential VR technology set to be released.

If there are such dangers with releasing the technology commercially, then how about having it as a training aid in certain professions? That’s where it gets interesting, because VR tech is already being used by military personnel around the world. Whether it’s used for flight, parachuting, battlefield or vehicle simulation, not only the Army but the Navy and Air Force are all using such technology. This gives the military the ability to train the reactions of their soldiers extensively with a variety of situations before they’ve even taken a step out the door.

How about a less violent application you might say? Well medical professionals and students across the world have access to technology that allows them to practice performing surgery in a safe and controlled environment without the risk of a mistake costing a human life. This benefit does not just apply to physical ailments, but virtual reality therapy has been successful in helping people with everything from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD to several phobias, as the technology provides a safe environment to perform treatments such as calming the patient or having them face their fear without any actual danger being necessary.

From business to construction, there are a multitude of industries that already benefit from VR tech and this could vastly be expanded in the coming years with the improving development of such technology.

With such a promising future for virtual reality, why isn’t everyone investing in it right away?

There are limitations to current technology; the experience of a user is limited by the hardware that the virtual reality environment is built on. So far the head-mounted displays used by most VR experiences are very expensive to develop and even more so to maintain, since there are few technicians that have enough experience with the hardware to diagnose and subsequently fix any issues that arise with regular use. This all adds up to high development costs, and even higher long term costs, making the technology commercially unviable at the moment. On top of this, the psychological and social desensitization potential could affect a user without them even knowing. For anyone who can lucid dream, you’ll know that when you realise you’re in a dream and that there are no consequences to your actions, your moral compass tends to get put away and forgotten about. Similarly, in a virtual world where the consequences of your actions have no bearing in reality, it could be easy enough to forget the real consequences of such an action. In an extreme situation this could translate to an action that would be performed by the user in a virtual environment being performed in reality.

At the end of the day, should we look forward to the prospect of commercial virtual reality tech? Definitely. But should we also be aware of the potential risks of the technology before we use it? Most certainly. In my opinion, this technology has the ability to create experiences that would encourage imagination in its users and definitely increase the effectiveness of any training simulation, to the extent that it’s worth developing.

Jamie Rodgers

Image courtesy of Alexandra Acosta via Flickr

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