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The Rebirth of Virtual Reality

Saturday, August 02, 2014
If there’s one visual technology that has struggled to live up to it’s potential more than 3D , it would be virtual reality (VR).  It is a concept that has been around for a surprisingly long time,  being the subject of a short sci-fi story written in 1930 called ‘Pygmalion’s Spectacles’, which describes a goggle based VR system, which includes the senses of smell and touch.

It is possibly this unrealistic expectation of VR, that it will instantly and seamlessly transport us into another world, that has hindered its mainstream acceptance.  This has not been helped by the portrayals of VR in mainstream media, such as the ‘Holodeck’ in Star Trek: The next generation, or even the Matrix itself in the Matrix trilogy. In reality, VR users have always been very aware that they are wearing a headset and looking at a tiny screen inches from their face.  But the next generation of VR technology aims to change all of that.

The hardware creating the biggest buzz most recently is the headset called Oculus Rift.  Although not currently in stores, the second version of it’s development kit (DK2) is available to game developers, and includes a host of features that set it apart from older generation headsets.


•    Positional tracking. With this, the Rift can track the position of your head in realtime, meaning that virtual environments can be interacted with in a host of new ways not possible before. You can now peek around the edge of a wall, lean forward to get a closer look at something, lean back to avoid danger…all of this makes the VR experience more intuitive and immersive

•    Low persistence: When you turn your head in the real world, your vision doesn’t tend to blur, something that has been a persistent issue in VR displays. With a combination of higher frame rates and a new OLED HD display, the Rift aims to reduce or even eliminate this blur, and the motion sickness that it can cause.


•    Latency. This describes the delay between movement from the user and the action on the screen (called motion to photon latency). Latency is a massive issue in VR, as a delay of even fractions of a second can cause disconnect from the experience, and even the dreaded motion sickness mentioned before. As more and more complicated games are developed for the Rift in full HD, maintaining near zero latency will remain an ongoing challenge.

The parent company of the Rift, Occulus VR has recently been purchased by Facebook for $2 billion US, so this is obviously a technology that some people are taking very seriously, and with that interest comes competition. There are already a number of other headsets out there vying for a slice of the VR pie, with technologies ranging from tiny projectors that shoot a virtual image directly onto your retina (the Avegant Glyph) or a lower end version that acts basically as a frame for using your own smartphone as a VR display (the Durovis Dive).
All of this technology is primarily geared towards playing games and watching movies, but VR can do much more than that. The first recorded commercial usage of the Rift was a small startup company in Prague offering people the opportunity to take a virtual helicopter tour of the city by sitting on a hydraulic platform and viewing a 3D Prague through the headset.

VR training has been around for as long as the flight simulator, but these next generation headsets are already being adopted as training devices around the world, in both military and civilian applications.

A parachute simulator being used by the US Navy

With the use of omnidirectional treadmills, users can walk or run freely though entire virtual landscapes, opening up a market for VR ‘gyms’.  One Swiss team has even combined a headset with a hydraulic rig, allowing a user to fly like a bird.

Other, more esoteric applications include mental therapy and physical rehabilitation. Some amputation patients have been found to reduce or even remove phantom pain by wearing a VR headset and controlling a virtual arm.

After something of a false start in the early 90’s, VR seems poised to make a massive comeback in the commercial and home use markets. How it will be used seems to be limited only by the developers imaginations.