Every life experience, from our birth to our death, can be reduced down to electrical stimulation of our brains from sensory organs providing us with information about the world around us. “Reality” is our interpretation of these electrical signals, which means that our brains are essentially our own reality. Whatever you feel, hear, see, taste, or smell is an interpretation of the world around you that exists solely in your own brain. In general, even if we understand this concept, we work under the assumption that our interpretations are pretty close to the external world. Actually, this is not true at all. In certain crucial ways, the brain “sees” things that do not actually reflect the information that is being presented to our senses. We each live in our own reality bubble, constructed of both how we perceive using our senses and how our brains interpret these perceptions. This is exemplified by the concept of color. Color in itself is not a property of the world around us; rather, it is a category created by our perceptions. To experience the world with meaning, the brain just filter the world through our lenses. This is what makes virtual reality so intriguing for the future of communication in a variety of fields.

Now, our method of communicating our perception is with words. Words have proven to be ineffective for relaying our intentions and interpretations. With virtual reality, there is the potential for us to literally show each other way we see. Virtual reality allows us to reveal a world without our filter, which could endow mankind with a new method of communication that is a sort of telepathy, bringing the gap that exists due to our own unique interpretations of the world. With virtual reality, there is no ambiguity of what we mean like there is when we speak our intentions. This results in a truly perfect understanding, as all parties hold the exact same information. Understandably, excitement about these possibilities translates across a variety of fields. In this blog, we will look into the history of virtual reality, how it works, and its various applications.

History

Though the concept of virtual reality has been around since the 1950s, most people were not aware of it until the 1990s.1 However, the beginnings of this revolutionary concept started well-before it was conceived. If you think about virtual reality getting its start under the idea of creating the illusion of being somewhere other than where we actually are, it can be traced back to the panoramic paintings of the early 19th century. 2 These murals were designed to fill the entire field of vision of the viewer to make the paintings come to life, creating the illusion of really being there. Clearly, the desire to see things differently than our reality has been present for centuries.

In 1838, scientific research integral to the development of virtual reality was conducted by Charles Wheatstone. This research showed that each eye processes two different two-dimensional images, bringing them together to make one three-dimensional image. This is how he invented the stereoscope, which gave illusion of immersion into an image using this science. This later inspired the invention of the View-Master, which was designed for “virtual tourism.”

In the 1930s, Stanley G. Weinbaum would predict virtual reality in his science fiction short story, “Pygmalion’s Spectacles.”3 The story centers around a virtual reality system that uses goggles to broadcast a holographic recording of different experiences that involve all of the senses. In 1956, the first step towards virtual reality came to existence with the invention of the Sensorama.4 The Sensorama was invented by cinematographer Morton Heilig, who produced short films for the machine that immersed the viewer in the experience using a 3D display, vibrating seats, and smell generators. In the 1960s, Heilig followed the Sensorama with the invention of the Telesphere Mask, which was the first head-mounted display and featured stereoscopic 3D imagery and stereo sound.

In 1961, Philco Corporation engineers created the Headsight, a head-mounted display as we know them today.5 This technology used a different video screen for each eye as well as a magnetic motion tracking system linked up to a closed circuit camera. It was designed to see dangerous situations from a distance for military purposes. As the user moved their head, the camera would move so they could look around the environment naturally. This was the first step towards the head-mounted displays we know today, though it was not integrated with a computer. This would come later, in 1968, when Ivan Sutherland with his student Bob Sproull created the first virtual reality head-mounted display that connected to a computer called the Sword of Damocles.6 This heavy device hung from the ceiling as no user could comfortably support the weight of the machine, and required being strapped into it. In 1969, computer artist Myron Kruegere developed a series of “artificial reality” experiences that were responsive.7 Projects GLOWFLOW, METAPLAY, and PSYCHIC SPACE ultimately led to VIDEOPLACE technology, which allowed people to communicate through this responsive virtual reality.

In the 1980s, despite the fact that much technology had been developed in the field of virtual reality, there wasn’t actually a term for it. In 1987, the term “virtual reality” was coined by Jaron Lanier, who founded the Visual Programming Lab (VPL).8 Through VPL research, Lanier developed a series of virtual reality gadgets, including virtual reality goggles and gloves. These represented a giant leap forward for haptics technology, meaning touch interaction.9

In 1991, virtual reality became publicly available through a series of arcade games, though they were still not available in homes. In these games, a player would wear VR goggles, which provided immersive stereoscopic 3D images. Some units even allowed for multi-player gaming. In 1992, the sci-fi movie “The Lawnmower Man” introduced the concept of virtual reality to the general public, with Pierce Brosnan playing a scientist who uses virtual reality to turn a man with an intellectual disability into a genius.10 Interest in virtual reality peaked, and in 1993, Sega announced that they would be releasing a VR headset for the Sega Genesis console, though this technology failed to develop and it was never actually released. In 1995, Nintendo also attempted to release a 3D gaming console, though it flopped due to how difficult it was to use and it was discontinued shortly after it was released. In 1999, the concept of virtual reality became mainstream with the film “The Matrix,” in which some characters live entirely in virtually created worlds; though previous films touched on the concept, it was “The Matrix” that had a major impact.

In the 21st century, virtual reality technology has seen rapid development. As computer technology has evolved, prices have gone down, making virtual reality more accessible. With the rise of smartphones has come the HD displays and graphics capabilities necessary for lightweight, usable virtual reality devices. Today, technology such as camera sensors, motion controllers, and facial recognition are a part of daily technological tasks. Today, companies like Samsung and Google have started offering virtual reality through their smartphones, and videos game companies like PlayStation offer VR headsets for their games. The rising prevalence of virtual reality headsets has made this technology widely known. Given the strives VR technology has made in the last decade, the future of virtual reality offers fascinating possibilities.

How it Works

For the sake of simplicity, we will explain how virtual reality works through head-mounted displays, as this is the most widely known virtual reality technology. In most headsets, video is sent from a computer to the headset using an HDMI cable.11 They use either two feeds to one display or one LCD display per eye. Additionally, lens are placed between the pixels and the eye, which can sometimes be adjusted to the specific distance between the eyes. These lenses are used to focus the picture for the individual eye and create a stereoscopic 3D image using the technology that Wheatstone created centuries ago.

VR head-mounted displays also immerse the user in the experience by increasing the field of view, meaning the width of the image.12 A 360-display is not necessary and too expensive, so most headsets use around a 100 or 110 degree field of view. For the picture to be effective, the frame rate must be a minimum of 60 frames per second, though most advanced headsets go beyond this, upwards of 100 frames per second.

Another crucial aspect of VR technology is head tracking.13 Head tracking means that the picture in front of you moves with you as you move your head. The system used for head tracking is called 6DoF (six degrees of freedom) and it plots your head on a X,Y, and Z axis to measure all head movements. Some technology that may also be used include a gyroscope, magnetometer, and accelerometer, depending on the specific headset.

Headphones are also used in VR headsets to increase immersion. In general, either binaural or 3D audio is used to give the user a sense of depth of sound, meaning it can sound like a sound is coming from the side, behind, or a distance from them.

Currently, motion tracking technology is still being perfected in these VR headsets. This means that some technology uses motion sensors to track body movements, such as the Occulus Touch, which provides wireless controllers that allows you to use your hands perform actions in a game.

Finally, eye tracking is the latest component to be added to certain VR headsets. In these, an infrared sensor monitors the user’s eye movements so that the program knows where you are looking in your virtual reality. This allows in-game characters to react to where your eyes are and it also makes the depth of field more realistic. Further development of this technology is also set to reduce motion sickness, as it will make it feel more realistic to your brain.

With a greater understanding of this revolutionary technology, you can see how it can be useful in an infinite number of ways to a variety of different realms.

Military/Defense Applications

Virtual reality has already provided a lot of value to the military as one of the earliest motivations for this technology, with more possibilities on the horizon. Currently, virtual reality is being used to train soldiers for war.14 It is not hard to understand why the military leapt on this technology, as it allows a user to experience a dangerous environment without any actual danger to them. This makes military training not only safer, but more cost-effective in the long run, as real or physically simulated situations are quite expensive and can cause damage to costly equipment.15 Combat simulators are a common application of VR for the military, using headsets to give soldiers the illusion of being at war.16 This not only prepares them for the experience of war, it gives them a space in which they can practice using military technology with the ability to do it over again if they make a mistake. It also allows them to practice with each other within a virtual world, enhancing the communication of a unit.17 These virtual reality headsets also allow soldiers to prepare to make important decisions while in stressful situations.18 Given the demographics of army recruits in training (young adult men), this method of training is highly effective, as this group has grown up playing video games and finds this learning method appealing.19 Not only does virtual reality have applications for training soldiers, it may also be a helpful tool for helping them heal after combat; specifically, it may help treat PTSD.20 The idea is that virtual reality may allow soldiers to be exposed to potential triggers in a safe environment that allows them to process their symptoms and enables them to cope with new situations.

In the future, the military will likely take advantage of further developments in VR technology by enhancing the realism of the simulators. It is likely that more humanitarian and peacekeeping training will be done through the use of VR. It is likely that facial recognition technology will be incorporated in order to assess a person’s emotional state, which may help enhance communication further both between soldiers and with interacting with people in foreign countries. Regardless of how this new technology is applied, it is certain that the military will be at the cutting edge of the latest VR technology.

Commercial Applications

Presently, the entertainment industry is next in line after the military to benefit the most from further development of virtual reality technology. Most obviously, the world of gaming has seen impressive (and not so impressive) advancements with VR headsets. Just a couple years ago, virtual technology through video games seemed unlikely to actually come to fruition. Today, the three most prominent VR game systems are the Oculus Rift, Playstation VR, and the HTC Vive.21 Each features games that allow the user to immerse themselves into an environment, whether it is a boxing ring, a truck, or Gotham. The future of VR in gaming will likely center around the development of better eye tracking and motion detecting within virtual reality. With these developments, video games will be more immersive than ever.

Today, mobile phone companies are competing to create the most compelling VR device. Google recently released the Daydream View, a VR headset that is designed to be more comfortable and technologically advanced than its predecessor, Google Cardboard.22 Samsung has also recently released a comparable device called the Gear VR.23 Both of these devices allow the user to virtually visit anywhere in the world, use a series of apps, and also, as can be expected, play immersive games. As virtual reality technology becomes more prevalent, affordable, and usable, it is certain that more of these devices will saturate the market.

Psychological Applications

Finally, virtual reality has shown promise in the field of psychology. As mentioned above, potential has been shown for the use of VR for the treatment of PTSD. Beyond that, there is evidence to suggest that virtual reality could be applied to the clinical treatment of other anxiety disorders, such as phobias.24 Additionally, there is currently research being conducted in how virtual reality could help treat people with schizophrenia deal with their delusions and paranoia, allowing them to face their fears.25 Finally, virtual reality has the power to change how psychological research is performed entirely. With the use of VR, psychological researchers could have complete insight into the minds of certain people, giving them greater understanding of how to treat certain conditions.26

The future of virtual reality is beyond anyone’s wildest imagination at the moment, but suffice it to say, it is safe to assume that the technology will only get more realistic from here. The potential applications for this technology are enormous in the military, the private sector, and the world of psychology, but other areas are set to benefit as well in ways we cannot anticipate. With time, virtual reality may be commonly available in everyone’s living room. Regardless of its specific future applications, virtual reality is set to change the world.

Further Reading

If you want to learn more about the fascinating technology behind VR or its applications, see the links below for further reading.

The Future of Virtual Reality – TheNanoAge.com
Virtual Reality in the Military: Present and Future – René ter Haar
Everything You Need to Know Before Buying a VR Headset – Wired
A Virtual Out-of-Body Experience Could Reduce Your Fear of Death – Seeker
The Use of Virtual Reality in Psychology – Computational and Mathematical Methods in Science


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