Every now and then, advanced technology comes along that is announced as “game changing”, with pundits declaring that we’ll all be using it within just a few years. This was said about tools and technology that are now ubiquitous: smartphones, the internet, and the personal computer. It was also said about innovations that are nowhere today: 3D television, Google Glass, and shopping from your TV. The reality is, technology can solve almost all of our problems, but sometimes the solutions create more inconvenience that they remove.
One technological innovation that has yet to have its fate decided is Virtual Reality (VR), a concept that has been dreamt of for the best part of a century. Up until quite recently, however, VR was difficult and costly to produce, with results that were of a pretty poor standard.
The first ever “virtual reality” device was created by Morton Heilig and amusingly called the “Sensorama”. It contained a viewing screen, some fans, speakers and a device for emitting smells, making it more closely related to today’s 4D cinemas than VR headsets. The latest headsets come with high definition graphics and are wireless, helping them to overcome some of their initial drawbacks. These new devices have been touted as having many uses, here are some of them.
Gaming is probably the biggest driver of virtual reality technology, and one that most people associate with it. VR gaming is not a new concept; Nintendo created a device called the Virtual Boy in the 1990s, but it was a concept ahead of its time and ended up a colossal failure. Modern VR is a feature of Sony’s PlayStation 4 and there are a number of devices that work with PCs, however Microsoft has said it has dropped plans to release VR devices and games for its Xbox Console.
iGaming is another area of the video games industry that has embraced virtual reality. A number of iGaming brands have launched VR versions of poker that allow players to fully immerse themselves in a virtual casino environment. The experience is similar to live casinos, where games are run by a live croupier or dealer and attempt to more accurately recreate the experience of a land based casino. Virtual reality goes one step further by adding realism and a 3D environment. PokerStars have even added a feature that allows players to read the body language of their opponents, a key element to poker games.
VR is not just for gaming. It has applications in a number of other spheres, including education. Google’s Cardboard project is perhaps the cheapest way to get into using virtual reality. As its name suggests, it is essentially a headset made from cardboard. Users who download the “Cardboard” app to their smartphone can take themselves on “virtual field trips” to learn about different subjects, including geography and science.
One example virtual field trip is to Mount Everest, where students can virtually explore the base camp with different pieces of information shown next to items. This can allow students to explore the world outside the classroom in a way that they would never have been able to do – when learning about mountains it is unlikely most educational institutions will take their students to the base camp of the world’s tallest mountain. Yet, with virtual reality this can be done very cheaply.
Healthcare is another area where virtual reality technology may be able to have a big impact. For example, medical students will be able to use virtual reality to practice complex surgical procedures without the need for a human or model body. This gives them more opportunities to get hands on practice in a controlled, safe environment with no risk to patients.
VR can also be used in treatment, such as in the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In this, a patient uses virtual reality to be exposed to a situation that may cause them stress, but in a controlled environment. VR headsets have also been provided to patients that are experiencing severe pain in order to create a distraction for the brain, therefore aiding their pain management.
There are many promising uses for virtual reality and it may be that the original driver for the technology – gaming – may not be the sector that ultimately sees the most success. Evidence of this can be seen in the fact that Microsoft has pulled support for VR on its Xbox console, whilst the application of virtual reality technology in the education and healthcare spheres are continuing to progress.
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