“Virtual Reality” is a technology whose time has finally come. But what is virtual reality? Proper definitions of the terms are sometimes very technical, but here I will define virtual reality as a set of techniques that replace your perception of reality with another artificial set of sensory inputs, creating the impression of a different reality.
A Crash Course in the History of VR
VR as an idea is actually pretty old. In fact, technologies that are clear precursors to modern VR can be traced all the way back to the 1860s, with 360-degree panoramic murals. The term itself, however, entered our lexicon somewhere during the 1980s, when it began to refer to digital and electronic solutions.
Virtual reality has had a pretty tough ride over the years. Valiant early pioneers of the technology tried their best to get the general public interested, but early VR systems were pretty nasty to use. They were heavy, primitive, and pretty bad for your health. You’d often stumble away with motion sickness and a bad headache. VR from the 1990s and early 2000s represented a tiny niche application, and the best VR was only available in an institutional setting. As a consumer product, it was basically non-existent.
That changed, thanks to smartphone technology. All that money people have spent on smartphones and all the competition to provide better and better smartphone specifications has driven the key components needed for truly good VR. The processors, high-resolution screens, and tiny motion sensors on smartphones are not to be found in the major consumer VR systems from companies like Oculus and HTC. They still had to figure out a lot of details, such as the tracking latency and optics, but now we have VR that’s both good and relatively affordable.
What’s Contemporary VR Like?
I’m lucky enough to have both an Oculus Rift and a computer powerful enough to run it, so I’ve spent a fair number of hours in a modern cutting-edge consumer VR system. The verdict is simple: they’ve finally cracked it. The technology is now at the point where my brain is successfully tricked into feeling “present” in the VR world. Objects are perceived as having real mass and form. You feel tempted to reach out and touch them (which you can’t do yet), and standing on the precipice of a virtual drop induces very real vertigo.
The trick was to give the brain the right sensory inputs it expects for the perception of reality. It doesn’t matter that the imagery is not photorealistic – what matters are things like very low latency tracking and low-persistence, high frame rate screens.
Sitting in the cockpit of my virtual jet I can “sense” the claustrophobic oppression of the glass canopy. Looking down the length of my space fighter I really get the sense of its power and speed. Yes, there are still many elements missing. You can’t feel motion, texture, or pressure, but current VR clearly proves that the core perceptual experience can be convincing enough to trick you into feeling present in the virtual world. That is a major breakthrough.
Right in the Niche
Yes, getting into VR is still pretty expensive, but that will change with time. The price of the computer system needed at a minimum to drive VR properly is falling all the time, and new improvements to VR techniques have cut that even further.
At least we know from early-adopter reviews that the technology is finally ready for primetime. So let’s look at what the future may hold for VR.
“Haptics” refers to the sense of touch we all rely on to help perceive and navigate the world. There are many different ways to simulate this that already exist today. Modern game consoles have advanced rumble that can simulate how objects feel. For example, the new Nintendo Switch has a game where you need to count how many marbles are rolling around “inside” the controller. It’s uncanny how real they feel. There are also gloves that exert pressure on the hand using mechanical or pneumatic force, which can simulate holding objects such as a sphere or a cube, among other things.
Disney has also come up with an incredible screen that uses clever vibrations to emulate the texture of different objects.
We also have innovative products like the Woojer that try to fill some of the more niche-sensory gaps in VR such as the “feeling” of sound.
The Future of Haptics
Still, there are some things you just can’t fake yet. Experiences such as flying or swimming are pretty hard to simulate mechanically, and in a way that would be affordable. We have omnidirectional treadmills such as the Virtuix Omni to help with infinite walking, but any sort of suspension is not really practical.
I believe the true future of VR haptics lies in utility fog (which I’ve written about on this site), at least as far as it goes when we want to physically emulate motion and texture. The other option is direct brain interfaces, which will cut out all the hardware and simply send virtual sensory data straight to the brain. This means VR will not require your sensory organs to actually be stimulated.
Which one of these technologies ends up being put into practice first is anyone’s guess, since both need some pretty advanced breakthroughs before becoming a reality.
It’s wonderful that we already have access to such realistic VR today, something I thought might still have been a bit off into the future. It’s a solid step on the path to blurring the line between real life and a simulated one; where our dreams can actually come true, no matter how wild or imaginative.
VR is definitely a technology to watch, and the future of the industry still looks bright.