Virtual reality – which is appearing in the news nowadays, presented as something new – has been part of our lives for nearly 60 years in one form or another. In the 50s, early ‘sensory’ machines were small, phone booth-sized theatres. One such case was Sensorama, where users placed their heads inside for an immersive experience by means of a projected film.
This concept was developed by the US military, which implemented it in flight simulators to lower the cost of training new pilots and to reduce accidents.
Over the years, the technology used for virtual reality began to downsize. Machines with a large volume and weighing dozens of kilos began to turn into small helmets. Back then, it was still called ‘stereoscopic vision’ but the foundations had already been laid down. Engineers knew what the target was: “an immersive visual and auditive experience indistinguishable from reality.”
Unfortunately, the technology was still far from achieving this goal. Products worth almost $100,000 with haptic gloves (which apply pressure where the user should feel it), such as the one created by VPL Research, produced clumsy results, a long way away from the ultimate goals.
The diversity of the laboratories, universities and military forces involved in creating these technologies gave rise to evolutions and separate nomenclatures. Artificial reality, augmented reality and virtual reality were some of the names that aimed to summarize the concept of stimulating our senses with something non-existent. But for the general public, they would be all united under the concept of virtual reality, first coined by Jaron Lanier, founder of VPL Research’s own, in the late 80s.
No need to be real, but interactive
Today, no virtual reality has yet been developed that is indistinguishable from reality. It is estimated that we will have to wait a decade or more to see that. Users have indicated that they prefer interactive virtual environments to more realistic ones in almost every situation. In the case of pilot training, for example, the perfect texturing of the clouds was of little use if integration bore no resemblance to reality. Our perception is based on virtualized behaviour rather than appearance. This revelation would impact later developments, which focused initially on certain professional fields because of the high costs involved. It would take years to make individual consumers interested in this technology, as they were distrustful after the bad experiences of the past.
Beyond the purely visual experience, engineers and scientists focused on improving ergonomics and comfort, as well as reducing dizziness and headaches caused by badly-implemented devices in the past.
Helmets remain the most immersive experience nowadays, but they must be accompanied by effective methods of environment monitoring and localization. Putting on a pair of virtual reality glasses was of little use if you could not move, as was the case with Nintendo’s Virtual Boy from 1985. Or not being able to control your movement and colliding with walls, as had happened a few years earlier with the Sega VR.
There are multiple ways to solve the problem of moving in closed environments. A less obvious solution, but perhaps the most intelligent, is small, subtle software variations that make us think we are walking straight while we are actually walking in circles. This is made possible by cameras located at strategic points, which give the system a vision of the subject and adapt the simulated environment; such a system is used by the HTC Vive, the most versatile device nowadays.
The second option is closed walking environments, of which the best-known is perhaps Omni by Virtuix. It consists of an omnidirectional treadmill where the user is tethered by a harness at hip-height. These kinds of elements allow you to move in any direction without leaving the site, and keep your arms free for movement and interaction.
The future of virtual reality will be linked to entertainment content generators producing and recording virtual reality content and developers continuing to create specific software, as well as the resolution of screens and the capacity of graphic processes increasing further.
There are so many applications of virtual reality that it is impossible to list them all, but so far, education and entertainment, and even art, have been the more receptive fields. Less clear areas of application, but ones that will be much more important in the long term, are its use for space exploration and in medical environments, from performing remote surgeries to “peeking inside” the body of a patient to make a better diagnosis.