Virtual Reality: A Brave New World
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There is an old belief nestled in many religions of the world called reincarnation. This doctrine holds that after a person's body dies, their soul is given a new life in a new body, moving from one life to another, from one reality to the next. Depending on how a person lived their life, they could be reborn as a divine spirit if they led a good life, or as a dog if they led a bad one.
Now imagine there was a way people could experience a new reality, with the added bonus of not having to die, through the use of technology (and I'm not talking about using a DeLorean to alter the time-space continuum).
The ultimate goal of virtual reality (VR), also known as a virtual environment, is to create a simulated, three-dimensional world that people can fully interact with and explore through the use of computer technology. In addition, virtual realities would also create artificial sensory experiences such as sight, hearing, touch, and smell.
One of the earliest examples of a virtual reality system was created in 1968 by computer scientist Ivan Sutherland with the help of his student Bob Sproull. Using a head-mounted display (HMD), a computer program displayed simple wire-frame models through the binocular display, allowing the user to see the models from a variety of perspectives. Due to the extreme weight of the display, which had to be suspended from the ceiling or else it would crush the user, the system was called “The Sword of Damocles,” in consideration of the Greek anecdote.
In the 1980s, Jaron Lainer, a pioneer in the field of virtual reality, founded VPL Research, a company specializing in developing virtual software and hardware. The DataGlove, the EyePhone, and the AudioSphere are three VR products created by the company, and while they were not popular in a commercial sense, they became some of the most popular symbols of virtual reality.
During the 1990s, Virtuality, a line of virtual reality arcade games, was released and shocked the VR world. These pods came in two different styles: one which requires the player to stand up and another which has the player sit down. Each pod uses stereoscopic, head-mounted displays, and joysticks for the player to look and move around. Some of the games for Virtuality were single-player games, but a few of them were marketed as multiplayer games. One of Virtuality's multiplayer games, Dactyl Nightmare, had two players face off against each other with grenade launchers, while pterodactyls would occasionally swoop down and grab one of the players.
However, early virtual reality games were more focused on displaying the virtual reality aspect, rather than focusing on the games' graphics or storytelling. As such, after the initial interest died down, the popularity of Virtuality pods plummeted as the cost was too expensive, and the experience was not as rewarding in comparison to normal arcade games. After this, interest in virtual reality and head-mounted displays died down for a while when something known as the “World Wide Web” was released.
During the end of the twentieth century, entrepreneur Philip Rosedale created Linden Labs with the objective of developing VR hardware for computer users, so they could fully experience a 360 degree virtual world. Their first prototype of the hardware resulted in “The Rig,” a clunky steel contraption with monitors mounted on the shoulders. While the hardware has never been used, the software, from which Linden Labs developed “The Rig,” was released in 2004 on its own as “Second Life,” an online virtual world with no set objective, where users could do virtually, no pun intended, whatever they wanted.
Virtual reality isn't just a means of entertainment; it can also be used in training for real world situations. The military uses virtual reality to train soldiers for combat situations as well as other dangerous settings in which soldier must learn to react in an appropriate manner. VR technology replicates real-world combat conditions, and also removes the risk of injury or death. All three divisions of the military (Army, Navy, Air Force) use virtual reality to some extent for training soldiers.
As the current generation has grown up with digital technology, and most have played war-themed games, training with virtual reality is an ideal method for training soldiers. By creating virtual environments for them, soldiers can safely test out the skills and techniques they have learned in basic training. In addition, the soldiers can be given a set of objectives to complete in a virtual environment that won't cost themselves, or the rest of their platoon, if they make a mistake.
The Army uses virtual reality to train soldier how to drive tanks and aircraft. They can create different environments and weather conditions for the soldiers to train in, so that they will be ready, no matter the landscape or the weather. The Navy uses virtual reality to mimic the actions of real submarines, allowing sailors to become accustomed to the pitching and rolling that a real submarine would experience as it dives or ascends. The Navy also uses virtual reality to replicate a ship's bridge as a way of teaching sailors steering, navigation, and ship-handling techniques. The Air Force uses virtual reality as flight simulators to teach airmen how to fly, how to deal with emergencies, and how to communicate with ground control while in the air.
In addition to the military, NASA uses virtual reality to train astronauts for missions and activities in space. These can be divided into four major groups: Extra-Vehicular Activities trains astronauts for space walks outside of the spacecraft; Simplified Aid for EVA Rescue (SAFER) trains them for situations in which an astronaut becomes detached from the spacecraft and has to navigate their way back using their backpacks; Robotic Operations trains them for activities related to the shuttle and the space station arm; Zero-G Mass Handling helps astronauts get a feel for doing things in zero gravity, such as moving payloads.
Virtual reality is far from perfect as it exists today. However, even in its limited form, it provides us with entertainment, education, and training, allowing us to handle real-world situations with relative ease. Just imagine the possibilities, what we'll be able to accomplish in the future when this technology has been perfected: both the real world and the virtual world will never be the same.
Tired of waiting? You can pre-order Oculus Rift today, and see for yourself. Scheduled for release on March 28, 2016 it is one of the first consumer-targeted virtual reality headsets with the goal of making it possible "to experience anything, anywhere, through the power of virtual reality."