Woohooo! What a roller coaster ride. Yayy! I am in a Jurassic park. OMG! That dinosaur is coming towards me. Nooo! A sudden drop. Awesome! That was one heck of a trip. Whoa! What an experience. No, this is not about some amusement park I visited. No, this is not about an outing I went to. No, this is not about the future zone. This is about me sitting in a seat with my goggles on. Welcome to the world of Virtual Reality!
We had a great release last week (about Salesforce Marketing Cloud) which meant a customary project party. Lunch & dinners are quite boring, so we always opt for ‘gaming’. This time it was Iona. Nah! I am not talking about that small island on the western coast of Scotland. That would have been too far, & too costly for the client to afford 😉 This is Iona Entertainment – the ultimate entertainment destination which was recently in the news after ‘Chris Gayle’ became its Brand Ambassador.
“Virtual Reality Ride. An Oculus based single seater virtual reality ride from Spain, which will take you on a 360 degree spin.”
“Let’s go for 7D” my manager said. And the next 10 minutes forced me to write this article. Though my wife recently received 3D VR Headset as an award for her great work, we never used it till date. But this 7D experience completely changed my mind & senses. Thanks to Jaron Lanier who in 1987 coined the term ‘Virtual Reality’. It took me 30 years to appreciate its value 🙂
What is Virtual Reality (VR)?
“Not physically existing but made to appear by Software”
Virtual Reality is what it states – a computer-generated (simulated) reality. Didn’t get it? In simple terms it’s like a dream. Yeah! Dreams. A fantasy which is not real. A simulated vision to generate realistic images, sounds and other sensations that simulate a user’s physical presence in a virtual or imaginary environment. The computer technology that enable this vision (commonly using a VR headset in combination with physical spaces or multi-projected environments) is known as Virtual Reality. It’s like you are living a dream, which is not real, but looks real enough. You can look around the virtual world, listen to the sounds, move around, and sometimes feel the atmosphere too (like snow falling). The immersive environment is similar to the real world in order to create a lifelike experience grounded in reality or sci-fi.
Note: Ever travelled distances when engrossed reading a classic novel? – That’s a kind of virtual reality. Watching a 3D movie wearing 3D-glasses is a common use of virtual reality now-a-days.
How is that possible to ‘create’ virtual reality?
How do you experience reality? I mean how do you know something is real? You saw it? Heard it? Touched it? Yeah! We know the world through our basic five senses – taste, touch, smell, sight and hearing. Inputs from the senses is processed by our brain to allow rich flow of information from the environment to our minds. Everything that we know about reality comes by way of our senses. What if I presented made-up inputs to your senses? Your reality will change, right? The next obvious question is – How do you present made-up information to the senses? That’s the Virtual Reality technology. There are a range of systems that are used for this purpose, such as headsets, omni-directional treadmills, special gloves, the sound effects, the virtual video content, virtual atmosphere, and the software to coordinate everything. Often, it involves wearing a wraparound headset called a head-mounted display, clamping stereo headphones over your ears, and touching or feeling your way around your imaginary home using datagloves (gloves with built-in sensors). These are used to actually stimulate our senses together in order to create the illusion of reality. Providing a worthwhile VR experience is more difficult than it sounds because everything has to be in perfect sync. Ever tried reading a novel in a moving car?
Components of a Virtual Reality system
Virtual Reality’s most immediately-recognizable component is the head-mounted display (HMD). Human beings are visual creatures, and display technology is often the single biggest difference between immersive Virtual Reality systems and traditional user interfaces. The likes of the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift provide PC-based operations, though major players such as Google and Samsung offer more affordable, smartphone-based headsets. Keeping that aside, the companies working in the virtual reality sector fall broadly into three categories of involvement:
- Hardware: making headsets (head-mounted goggles with a screen in front of the eyes) and input devices specific to VR – like Facebook Oculus Rift, Google Daydream, HTC Vive or Microsoft HoloLens. Also, in order to create truly immersive Virtual Reality experiences, accurate environmental sounds and spatial characteristics are a must.
- Software: producing software for interfacing with the hardware or for delivering content to users.
- Content creation: producing content, whether interactive or passive story lines, games, and artificial worlds, for consumption and exploration with VR hardware.
The goal of the hardware is to create what appears to be a life size, 3D virtual environment without the boundaries we usually associate with TV or computer screens.
Head-mounted displays (HMDs)
A typical HMD has two tiny screens that show different pictures to each of your eyes, so your brain produces a combined 3D (stereoscopic) image. In VR, you see a 3D image that changes smoothly, in real-time, as you move your head. That’s made possible by wearing a head-mounted display, which consists of two small screens (one in front of each eye), a blackout blindfold that blocks out all other light (eliminating distractions from the real world), and stereo headphones. HMDs usually also have built-in accelerometers or position sensors so they can detect exactly how your head and body are moving (both position and orientation—which way they’re tilting or pointing) and adjust the picture accordingly. Recently Google has developed an affordable, low-cost pair of cardboard goggles with built-in lenses that convert an ordinary smartphone into a crude HMD.
An alternative to putting on an HMD is to sit or stand inside a room onto whose walls changing images are projected from outside. This is what I experienced last week. Although we didn’t wear HMDs, but required stereo glasses to experience full 3D perception. As you move in the room, the images change accordingly. Flight simulators use this technique, often with images of landscapes, cities, and airport approaches projected onto large screens positioned just outside a mockup of a cockpit.
See something amazing and your natural instinct is to reach out and touch it. So giving people the ability to handle virtual objects has always been a big part of VR. Usually, this is done using datagloves, which are ordinary gloves with sensors wired to the outside to detect hand and figure motions. Data Gloves uses fiber-optic cables, strain gauges, piezoelectric sensors or electro-mechanical devices (such as potentiometers) to measure finger movements.
What’s the language of Virtual Reality?
The Virtual Reality Modelling Language (VRML), first introduced in 1994, was intended for the development of “virtual worlds” without dependency on headsets. It allows the creator to specify images and the rules for their display and interaction using textual language statements. The Web3D consortium was subsequently founded in 1997 for the development of industry standards for web-based 3D graphics. The consortium subsequently developed X3D from the VRML framework as an archival, open-source standard for web-based distribution of VR content.
All modern VR displays are based on technology developed for smartphones including: gyroscopes and motion sensors for tracking head, hand, and body positions; small HD screens for stereoscopic displays; and small, lightweight and fast processors. These components led to relative affordability for independent VR developers.
Isn’t ‘Real’ enough? Then why have Virtual Reality?
Many would say why put so much effort just to create a virtual world? VR has always suffered from the perception that it’s little more than a glorified arcade game. The key thing to remember is that VR is a hard-edged practical technology that’s been routinely used by scientists, doctors, dentists, engineers, architects, archaeologists, and the military for about the last 30 years. The potential value is clear. Wherever it is too dangerous, expensive or impractical to do something in reality, virtual reality is the answer. From trainee fighter pilots to medical applications trainee surgeons, virtual reality allows us to take virtual risks in order to gain real world experience.
- Unsurprisingly, the video games industry is one of the largest proponents of Virtual Reality. The industry has been quick to adapt as the hardware for true Virtual Reality gaming has become more widely available.
- Data visualization: Recent innovation in display technology has generated interest in everything from molecular visualization to architecture to weather models.
- Aviation, medicine and the military training: Difficult and dangerous jobs are hard to train for. How can you safely practice taking a trip to space, landing a jumbo jet, making a parachute jump, or carrying out brain surgery? Virtual Reality training is an attractive alternative to live training with expensive equipment, dangerous situations, or sensitive technology. Flight cockpit simulators were among the earliest VR applications; they can trace their history back to mechanical simulators developed by Edwin Link in the 1920s. Just like pilots, surgeons are now routinely trained using VR.
- Architecture: Architects used to build models out of card and paper; now they’re much more likely to build virtual reality computer models you can walk through and explore. By the same token, it’s generally much cheaper to design cars, airplanes, and other complex, expensive vehicles on a computer screen than to model them in wood, plastic, or other real-world materials.
The possibilities are endless, it’s virtual.
Get your Gear & experience the Virtual Reality
“A believable, interactive computer-created world that you can explore so you feel you really are there, both mentally and physically.”
Virtual reality uses a host of technologies to create a convincing, interactive world for the user and is a technically complex feat that has to account for our perception and cognition. Critics always raise the risk that people may be seduced by alternative realities to the point of neglecting their real-world lives. Like many technologies, VR takes little or nothing away from the real world: you don’t have to use it if you don’t want to. You’ll probably never drive a F1 racing car, go to Mars, pilot a fighter jet, or run an Olympic 100 meters. But if virtual reality ever lives up to its promise, you might be able to do all these things – and many more – without even leaving your home. The Oculus Rift is heralded as one of the premier systems for home use and the Samsung Gear VR works with the latest Samsung Galaxy smart phones to turn any smart phone screen into a VR experience. As the cost of virtual reality goes down and it becomes more mainstream, we can surely accept its widespread adoption.