An Introduction to Virtual Reality (VR)

What is Virtual Reality?

Virtual Reality (or VR) is, in the simplest of terms, a simulation of something that doesn’t exist, in a very real environment. So you can be taking a stroll in 1930 Vienna without actually even leaving your sofa.

But to experience an alternate reality you would like to have some control over what you are experiencing, without it, the simulation would be akin to watching a movie on a large screen. Hence, the user is provided some level of control with the help of sensors and motion tracking devices. This stimulation (created using computers) engages the user’s senses to create an illusion of a reality and is known as the Virtual Reality Environment (VRE)

introduction to virtual reality

Virtual Reality headsets can be paired with many control devices.

In a virtual reality environment, users experience immersion or the feeling of being a part of that world. They are also able to interact with their environment in meaningful ways (You could shoot aliens in outer space or run your fingers through your pet lion’s mane).This combination of immersion and interactivity is known as telepresence.

An effective telepresence is established when the user completely forgets about his original surroundings and effortlessly interacts with the simulation. If he sees a chair in a VRE, he should be able to view it from every angle, and the point of view should shift as the user moves in the environment.

Well, this sounds fascinating until now. And you must be wondering why don’t we have super cool gadgets sporting this technology? But the reality is (pun intended) its easier said than done.

Jonathan Steuer, an expert in virtual reality from Stanford University states that there are two main components of an effective VR experience:-

Depth of information and Breadth of information

The depth of information is mainly the richness of the input data a user receives. It is the quality of display graphics, resolution, and sophistication of audio quality and complexity of the induced environment.

The breadth of information, on the other hand, refers to the number of senses the stimulation engages. It can be a combination of auditory, visual, haptic, olfactory or all of these together, higher the breadth of information, richer the experience.

The existing technology that we have developed so far still has issues that are related to creating a complete VRE. One of them is inconsistent sensory stimulation.

The sensory output should adjust in real time as the user navigates the environment.

Latency 

You are standing on a railway platform, waiting for a train. Suddenly, you feel your nose tingle as you sharply inhale a sudden gust of cold wind. You cast your eyes towards the sky, looking for an oncoming storm, but only see a vast blanket of gray clouds, looming eerily. You’re able to hear the faint hiss of a guzzling engine in the distance as a shrill whistle rams itself against your eardrums, and you look towards your left, at the oncoming Soviet-era train, billowing puffs of smoke into the dark clouds.

Well technically as the train approaches you, thanks to the Doppler Effect, you should be able to notice a shift in its sound patterns. Those two things, the movement of the train towards you and its sound should together create a realistic effect. Change of sound and vision perspective according to the user’s position in the environment is vital to creating an immersive illusion. If there is a delay in what the user sees and feels, this illusion crumbles, and the user becomes aware of being in a VRE.

Such a “lag” or “delay” in the action by the user and time of reflection of by the environment is known as LATENCY. Studies have found that humans can detect latency of 50 milliseconds. When you experience latency in VR, it is known as swimming. And you may not want to “swim” while in VR as it is known to cause motion sickness or cybersickness.

Existing VR technologies

Now that we know what Virtual Reality is, let’s take a glance at how the concept has evolved over time.

The first VR device ever built was designed by Morton Heilig, a cinematographer by profession. He built a machine called Sensoroma which successfully encompassed all the senses of the user in an effective manner. Going by the standards of that era, it was a very compact machine; intuitively built to create an immersion experience. Take a look at the price tag though!

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Introduction to Virtual Reality - History of VR the Sensorama
Morton’s Sensorama

Today we basically have the following three types of VR technologies that have grown out of probably theoretical models into actual products.

HMD – Head Mounted Displays

The first and the most popular is the Head Mounted Displays (HMD). These are the giant goggle-esque VR headsets we’ve seen everywhere. They are worn on the head with a display which cover the entire field of vision; headphones are also worn on the sides. They can track head movement with the help of little gyration sensors which detect movement and change the perspective in the VRE accordingly. Though bulky, they are the cheapest of all the technologies being created so far and hence, can be easily commercialized. We will see more about these technologies in the next article.

head mounted display hdm
Sony’s HMD

BOOM – Bionic Omni Orientation Monitor

This is a direct ancestor to HMD. The human brain perceives depth only because it has two eyes for visual input. Each eye sees a slightly different angle of the same scene (as evidenced when you hold your finger in front of your nose, then look at it with one eye closed, both eyes and the other eye closed ? the image shifts). These two separate views are combined in the brain to form a single, 3D image, with parts of the data from each eye used to work out relative distances. This is where BOOM comes in the scene. It consists of a 3D display that swivels freely suspended from a weighted bottom. It’s usually attached to a trolley or the ceiling

BOOM - Bionic Omni Orientation Monitor
BOOM – Bionic Omni Orientation Monitor

CAVE – Cave Automatic Virtual Environment

The cave is a result of a brilliantly simple concept. The idea is to create an immersive virtual environment by projecting images on the walls of a room. The user wears a pair of 3D glasses attached with sensors. These glasses help the computer track the person’s movement and change the projections displayed on the walls accordingly. Setting up a CAVE is expensive as it requires high definition projectors and screens. Also, it can be used by only one person at a time.
CAVE - Cave Automatic Virtual Environment
CAVE – Cave Automatic Virtual Environment

These concepts are being brilliantly put to use by many companies that are springing up all over the place to cater to the world’s VR needs. And I personally think that the future is bright for the VR industry.  Small studios that were relatively unknown last year have grown huge by creating VR content. In the next article, we will take a look at some of the major applications of Virtual Reality in various industries like Medicine, Education, Tourism, and Arts.


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