Whatever happened to virtual reality?
In the 1980s, we were assured it was just around the corner–computer-generated worlds indistinguishable from reality, like the holodeck from Star Trek: The Next Generation.
Virtual reality (VR) first popped into the headlines in the late 1980s because computing power–and the ability of computers to create realistic-looking images–had reached a level where it seemed possible. We also had the VR helmet, which replaces images of the real world with images of the computer-generated world and tracks head movements, and the dataglove, a glove covered with motion sensors that allowed you to use your hand to interact with objects in a computer-generated world. So why didn’t VR take off as expected?
Unfortunately, the dreams of what might someday be possible exceeded the capabilities of the available technology. VR helmets and their optics were too heavy. Computers were too slow. Datagloves were too heavy, making it tiring to hold your hand in front of you for a long period of time. In fact, the only experiences early VR systems was able to produce reliably were headaches and motion sickness, brought mainly by latency, the delay between turning your head and seeing the corresponding change in the display. (Research has since shown that latency must be less than 15 thousandths of a second for the virtual environment to feel natural.)
But today, VR helmets and optics are lighter and produce a more immersive experience. Computers are thousands of times more powerful. We can even simulate touch, through “haptics,” which uses small motors in gloves and other devices to provide resistance matched to objects within the virtual world, fooling the brain into thinking those objects are solid.
Scientists also know more about some of the human factors involved. For instance, a study has shown that people wearing VR helmets like to glance down and see their own virtual body–it “grounds” them in the simulation–and that the body should be correct, and match their self-image.
Virtual reality still can’t give us the Star Trek holodeck (or, to use a more recent example, the Matrix.) But that doesn’t mean virtual reality isn’t having a real-world impact. Here are some examples from newspaper and magazine articles from within just the past month:
NASA is exploring the possibility of using a fully immersive, head-mounted control system for its Autonomous Extravehicular Robotic Camera, a spherical free-flying robot that could inspect orbiting spacecraft for trouble-spots.
Researchers at the University of British Columbia have developed a virtual swimming apparatus. A swimmer is suspended in a swimming cage wearing a hang-gliding harness, a head-mounted display, and eight tracking sensors. The virtual swimmer can swim through a computer generated coral reef–or anything else the computer can model, from the human bloodstream to financial data.
Stephane Bouchard, a researcher at the University of Quebec, uses VR to help patients overcome a fear of heights. The patient dons 3-D goggles and head-motion trackers to take a virtual glass elevator up the side of a 15-story building. After getting off on the floor of his or her choosing, the patient walks along a two-foot-wide ledge circling the building on the outside. (In a similar game developed elsewhere, a patient afraid of flying sits in a chair, wearing a headset and head motion tracker, while a therapist simulates a takeoff, landing or thunderstorm.)
In Northern Island VR is being used to help stroke patients regain the use of their arms and hands. Wearing a VR headset and dataglove, patients can practice making a cup of tea in a virtual kitchen or taking groceries off the shelves of a virtual store.
In Ohio, researchers have developed the “Virtual Haptic Back.” Users see a three-dimensional image of a back on a computer screen, and through motor-driven finger cups suspended from mechanical arms, can feel the texture and resistance of the skin and underlying bones.
A Swedish company has developed a simulator that allows surgeons to rehearse before cutting. A 3D scan is taken of the patient, then used to create a virtual copy. The surgeon can then practice, say, inserting a stent, before performing the actual operation. Clinical studies have shown that such rehearsal improves performance in the operating room, making the surgeon better able to anticipate complications, helping him or her select appropriate tools and techniques, and reducing the length of the surgery.
Whatever happened to virtual reality? Nothing. In fact, virtual reality is happening to us–and as technology advances, it’s going to be happening more and more.