REAL or UNREAL that is the question
Current VR technology most commonly uses virtual reality headsets or multi-projected environments, sometimes in combination with physical environments or props, to generate realistic images, sounds and other sensations that simulate a user's physical presence in a virtual or imaginary environment. A person using virtual reality equipment is able to "look around" the artificial world, move around in it, and interact with virtual features or items. The effect is commonly created by VR headsets consisting of a head-mounted display with a small screen in front of the eyes, but can also be created through specially designed rooms with multiple large screens.
VR systems that include transmission of vibrations and other sensations to the user through a game controller or other devices are known as haptic systems. This tactile information is generally known as force feedback in medical, video gaming and military training applications.
Etymology and terminology
“Virtual” has had the meaning “being something in essence or effect, though not actually or in fact” since the mid-1400s. The term “virtual” has been used in the computer sense of “not physically existing but made to appear by software” since 1959. In 1938, Antonin Artaud described the illusory nature of characters and objects in the theatre as “la réalité virtuelle” in a collection of essays, Le Théâtre et son double. The English translation of this book, published in 1958 as The Theater and its Double, is the earliest published use of the term “virtual reality”. The term “artificial reality“, coined by Myron Krueger, has been in use since the 1970s. The term “virtual reality” was first used in a science fiction context in The Judas Mandala, a 1982 novel by Damien Broderick.
Virtual reality shares some elements with “augmented reality” (or AR). AR is a type of virtual reality technology that blends what the user sees in their real surroundings with digital content generated by computer software. The additional software-generated images with the virtual scene typically enhance how the real surroundings look in some way. Some AR systems use a camera to capture the user’s surroundings or some type of display screen which the user looks at (e.g., Microsoft’s HoloLens, Magic Leap).
The Virtual Reality Modelling Language (VRML), first introduced in 1994, was intended for the development of “virtual worlds” without dependency on headsets. 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, and lead to the 2012 Oculus Rift kickstarter offering the first independently developed VR headset.
Independent production of VR images and video has increased by the development of omnidirectional cameras, also known as 360-degree cameras or VR cameras, that have the ability to record in all directions, although at low-resolutions or in highly compressed formats for online streaming. In contrast, photogrammetry is increasingly used to combine several high-resolution photographs for the creation of detailed 3D objects and environments in VR applications.
Before the 1950s
The exact origins of virtual reality are disputed, partly because of how difficult it has been to formulate a definition for the concept of an alternative existence. Elements of virtual reality appeared as early as the 1860s. French avant-garde playwright Antonin Artaud took the view that illusion was not distinct from reality, advocating that spectators at a play should suspend disbelief and regard the drama on stage as reality. The first references to the more modern concept of virtual reality came from science fiction.
Laurence Manning‘s 1933 series of short stories, “The Men Who Awoke“—later a novel—describes a time when people ask to be connected to a machine that replaces all their senses with electrical impulses and, thus, live a virtual life chosen by them (à la “The Matrix“, but voluntary, not imposed).
Morton Heilig wrote in the 1950s of an “Experience Theatre” that could encompass all the senses in an effective manner, thus drawing the viewer into the onscreen activity. He built a prototype of his vision dubbed the Sensorama in 1962, along with five short films to be displayed in it while engaging multiple senses (sight, sound, smell, and touch). Predating digital computing, the Sensorama was a mechanical device. Heilig also developed what he referred to as the “Telesphere Mask” (patented in 1960). The patent application described the device as “a telescopic television apparatus for individual use…The spectator is given a complete sensation of reality, i.e. moving three dimensional images which may be in colour, with 100% peripheral vision, binaural sound, scents and air breezes”.
The Sensorama was released in the 1950s.
Also notable among the earlier hypermedia and virtual reality systems was the Aspen Movie Map, which was created at MIT in 1978. The program was a crude virtual simulation of Aspen, Colorado in which users could wander the streets in one of the three modes: summer, winter, and polygons. The first two were based on photographs—the researchers actually photographed every possible movement through the city’s street grid in both seasons—and the third was a basic 3-D model of the city. Atari founded a research lab for virtual reality in 1982, but the lab was closed after two years due to Atari Shock (North American video game crash of 1983). However, its hired employees, such as Tom Zimmerman, Scott Fisher, Jaron Lanier and Brenda Laurel, kept their research and development on VR-related technologies. By the 1980s the term “virtual reality” was popularized by Jaron Lanier, one of the modern pioneers of the field. Lanier had founded the company VPL Research in 1985. VPL Research has developed several VR devices like the Data Glove, the Eye Phone, and the Audio Sphere. VPL licensed the Data Glove technology to Mattel, which used it to make an accessory known as the Power Glove. While the Power Glove was hard to use and not popular, at US$75, it was an early affordable VR device.
The VR industry mainly provided VR devices for medical, flight simulation, automobile industry design, and military training purposes from 1970 to 1990.
In 1991, Carolina Cruz-Neira, Daniel J. Sandin and Thomas A. DeFanti from the Electronic Visualization Laboratory created the first cubic immersive room, The Cave. Developed as Cruz-Neira’s PhD thesis, it involved a multi-projected environment, similar to the holodeck, allowing people to see their own bodies in relation to others in the room.
In 1992 researcher Louis Rosenberg created the Virtual Fixtures system at the U.S. Air Force’s Armstrong Labs using a full upper-body exoskeleton, enabling a physically realistic virtual reality in 3D. The system enabled the overlay of physically real 3D virtual objects registered with a user’s direct view of the real world, producing the first true augmented reality experience enabling sight, sound, and touch.
The 1990s saw the first widespread commercial releases of consumer headsets. In 1991, Sega announced the Sega VR headset for arcade games and the Mega Drive console. It used LCD screens in the visor, stereo headphones, and inertial sensors that allowed the system to track and react to the movements of the user’s head. In the same year, Virtuality launched and went on to become the first mass-produced, networked, multiplayer VR entertainment system. It was released in many countries, including a dedicated VR arcade at Embarcadero Center in San Francisco. Costing up to $73,000 per multi-pod Virtuality system, they featured headsets and exoskeleton gloves that gave one of the first “immersive” VR experiences. Antonio Medina, a MIT graduate and NASA scientist, designed a virtual reality system to “drive” Mars rovers from Earth in apparent real time despite the substantial delay of Mars-Earth-Mars signals.
In 1991, Computer Gaming World predicted “Affordable VR by 1994”. By 1994, Sega released the Sega VR-1 motion simulator arcade attraction, in SegaWorld amusement arcades. It was able to track head movement and featured 3D polygon graphics in stereoscopic 3D, powered by the Sega Model 1arcade system board. Also in 1994 Apple released QuickTime VR, which, despite using the term “VR”, was unable to represent virtual reality, and instead displayed 360 photographic panoramas.
The Virtual Boy was created by Nintendo and was released in Japan on July 21, 1995 and in North America on August 15, 1995. Also in 1995, a group in Seattle created public demonstrations of a “CAVE-like” 270 degree immersive projection room called the Virtual Environment Theater, produced by entrepreneurs Chet Dagit and Bob Jacobson. The same system was shown in 1996 in tradeshow exhibits sponsored by NetscapeCommunications. Forte released the VFX1, a PC-powered virtual reality headset in 1995, which was supported by games including Descent, Star Wars: Dark Forces, System Shock and Quake.
In 1999, entrepreneur Philip Rosedale formed Linden Lab with an initial focus on the development of VR hardware. In its earliest form, the company struggled to produce a commercial version of “The Rig”, which was realized in prototype form as a clunky steel contraption with several computer monitors that users could wear on their shoulders. The concept was later adapted into the personal computer-based, 3D virtual world Second Life.
A VPL Research DataSuit, a full-body outfit with sensors for measuring the movement of arms, legs, and trunk. Developed circa 1989. Displayed at the Nissho Iwai showroom in Tokyo
In 2001, SAS3 or SAS Cube became the first PC based cubic room, developed by Z-A Production (Maurice Benayoun, David Nahon), Barco, Clarté, installed in Laval France in April 2001. The SAS library gave birth to Virtools VRPack. By 2007, Google introduced Street View, a service that shows panoramic views of an increasing number of worldwide positions such as roads, indoor buildings and rural areas. It also features a stereoscopic 3D mode, introduced in 2010.
In 2010, Palmer Luckey designed the first prototype of the Oculus Rift. This prototype, built on a shell of another virtual reality headset, was only capable of rotational tracking. However, it boasted a 90-degree field of vision that was previously unseen in the consumer market at the time. This initial design would later serve as a basis from which the later designs came.
In 2013, Valve discovered and freely shared the breakthrough of low-persistence displays which make lag-free and smear-free display of VR content possible. This was adopted by Oculus and was used in all their future headsets.
In early 2014, Valve showed off their SteamSight prototype, the precursor to both consumer headsets released in 2016. It shared major features with the consumer headsets including separate 1K displays per eye, low persistence, positional tracking over a large area, and fresnel lenses.
On March 25, 2014, Facebook purchased Oculus VR for $2 billion. This purchase occurred before any of the devices ordered through Oculus’ 2012 Kickstarter had shipped. In that same month, Sony announced Project Morpheus (its code name for PlayStation VR), a virtual reality headset for the PlayStation 4 video game console. Google announces Cardboard, a do-it-yourself stereoscopic viewer for smartphones. The user places their smartphone in the cardboard holder, which they wear on their head. In 2015, the Kickstarter campaign for Gloveone, a pair of gloves providing motion tracking and haptic feedback, was successfully funded, with over $150,000 in contributions.
In February–March 2015, HTC and Valve Corporation announced the virtual reality headset HTC Vive and controllers. The set included tracking technology called Lighthouse, which utilized wall-mounted “base stations” for positional tracking using infrared light.
By 2016 there were at least 230 companies developing VR-related products. Facebook has 400 employees focused on VR development; Google, Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, Sony and Samsung all had dedicated AR and VR groups. Dynamic binaural audio was common to most headsets released that year. However, haptic interfaces were not well developed, and most hardware packages incorporated button-operated handsets for touch-based interactivity. Visually, displays were still of a low-enough resolution and frame-rate that images were still identifiable as virtual. On April 5, 2016, HTC shipped its first units of the HTC VIVE SteamVR headset. This marked the first major commercial release of sensor-based tracking, allowing for free movement of users within a defined space.
In early 2017, a patent filed by Sony showed they were developing a similar location tracking technology to the VIVE for PlayStation VR, with the potential for the development of a wireless headset.
Several virtual reality head mounted displays (HMD) were released for gaming during the early-mid 1990s. These included the Virtual Boy developed by Nintendo, the iGlasses developed by Virtual I-O, the Cybermaxx developed by Victormaxx and the VFX1 Headgear developed by Forte Technologies.
Since 2010, commercial tethered headsets for VR gaming include the Oculus, the HTC Vive and PlayStation VR.Systems in development include: the StarVR; FOVE; and the Magic Leap., while the Samsung Gear VR is an example of a mobile-phone based device.
Other modern examples of narrow VR for gaming include the Wii Remote, the Kinect, and the PlayStation Move/PlayStation Eye, all of which track and send motion input of the players to the game console somewhat accurately. Many devices have been developed to compliment VR programs with specific controllers or haptic feedback systems
Following the widespread release of commercial VR headsets in the mid-2010s, several VR-specific and VR versions of popular videogames have been released. Guild Software’s Vendetta Online was widely reported as the first MMORPG to support the Oculus Rift. On April 27, 2016, Mojang announced that the popular sandbox video game Minecraft was playable on the Gear VR.
PlayStation VR headset used in video games
Cinema and entertainment
Films produced for VR permit the audience to view a 360 degree environment. This can involve the use of VR cameras to produce films and series that are interactive in VR. Pornographic studios apply VR into their products, usually shooting from an angle that resembles POV-style porn.
The 2016 World Chess Championship match between Magnus Carlsen and Sergey Karjakin, was promoted as “the first in any sport to be broadcast in 360-degree virtual reality.” However, a VR telecast featuring Oklahoma hosting Ohio State, took place September 17, 2016. The telecasts (which used roughly 180 degrees of rotation, not the 360 required for full VR) were made available through paid smartphone apps and head-mounted displays.
Since 2015, virtual reality has been installed onto a number of roller coasters and theme parks. The Void is a virtual reality theme park in Pleasant Grove, Utah that has attractions where, by using virtual reality, AR and customized mechanical rooms, an illusion of tangible reality is created by the use of multiple senses.
Social science and psychology
Virtual reality offers social scientists and psychologists a cost-effective tool to study and replicate interactions in a controlled environment. In addition, virtual reality enables a new form of perspective-taking by allowing an individual to embody the form of a virtual avatar. Research in this area suggests that embodying another being presents a very different experience from solely imagining one’s self as a form. Researchers have used the immersion of virtual reality to investigate how digital stimuli can alter human perception, emotion and physiological state, and how it has transformed social interaction, in addition to studying how digital interaction can enact social change in the physical world.
Altering perception, emotion and physiological state
Studies have considered how the form we take in virtual reality can affect our perception and actions. One study suggests that embodying the body of a young child can influence perception of object sizes such that objects are perceived as being much larger than if the objects were perceived by an individual embodying an adult body. Similarly, another study has found that Caucasian individuals who embodied the form of a dark-skinned avatar performed a drumming task with a more varied style than when they were represented by a pair of white-shaded hands and in comparison to individuals who embodied a light-skin avatar. As a whole, these works suggest that immersive virtual reality can create body-transfer illusions capable of influencing how humans respond to different circumstances.
Research exploring perception, emotions and physiological response within virtual reality suggest that controlled virtual environments can alter how a person feels or responds to stimuli. For example, a controlled virtual environment of a park coupled with a strong perceived feeling of presence cause an individual to feel anxious or relaxed. Similarly, simulated driving through areas of darkness in a virtual tunnel can induce a fear response in humans. Social interaction with virtual characters in a virtual environment has been shown to produce physiological responses such as changes in heart rate and galvanic skin response. Individuals with high levels of social anxiety were found to have larger changes in heart rate than their more socially confident counterparts.
The sense of presence in virtual reality is also linked to the triggering of emotional and physiological response. Research suggests that a strong presence can facilitate emotional response, and this emotional response can further increase one’s feeling of presence. Similarly, breaks in presence (or a loss in the sense of presence) can cause physiological changes.
Understanding bias and stereotypes
Researchers have used embodied perspective-taking in virtual reality to explore whether changing a person’s self-representation may help in reducing bias against particular social groups. However, the nature of the relationship between embodiment and implicit bias is not yet clear as studies have demonstrated contrasting effects. Individuals who embodied the avatars of old people have demonstrated significant reduction in negative stereotyping of the elderly when compared with individuals placed in avatars of young people. Similarly, light-skinned individuals placed in avatars with a dark body have shown a reduction in their implicit racial bias. However, other research has shown individuals taking the form of a Black avatar had higher levels of implicit racial bias favoring Whites after leaving the virtual environment than individuals who were embodied as White avatars.
Healthcare and clinical therapies
A 2017 Goldman Sachs report examined VR and AR uses in healthcare. VR devices are also used in clinical therapy. Some companies are adapting VR for fitness by using gamificationconcepts to encourage exercise.
Anxiety disorder treatment
Virtual reality exposure therapy (VRET) is a form of exposure therapy for treating anxiety disorders such as post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and phobias. Studies have indicated that when VRET is combined with other forms of behavioral therapy, patients experience a reduction of symptoms. In some cases, patients no longer meet the DSM-V criteria for PTSD after a series of treatments with VRET.
Immersive VR has been studied for acute pain management, on the theory that it may distract people, reducing their experience of pain. Researchers theorize that immersive VR helps with pain reduction by distracting the mind and flooding sensories with a positive experience.
Education and training
VR is used to provide learners with a virtual environment where they can develop their skills without the real-world consequences of failing. It has also been used and studied in primary education. For example, in Japan’s online high school (“N High School”) VR plays a major role in education. Even the school’s opening ceremony was a virtual experience for 73 of the students: they received headsets, which were connected to the campus hundreds of miles away – so they got to listen to the principal’s opening speech without having to travel so far. According to the school’s workers, they wanted to give the students a chance to experience VR technology, before having to use it “live” as part of their education. The specific device used to provide the VR experience, whether it be through a mobile phone or desktop computer, does not appear to impact on any educational benefit.
Thomas A. Furness III was one of the first to develop the use of VR for military training when, in 1982, he presented the Air Force with a working model of his virtual flight simulator the Visually Coupled Airborne Systems Simulator (VCASS). The second phase of his project, which he called the “Super Cockpit”, was even more advanced, with high resolution graphics (for the time) and a responsive display. Furness is often credited as a pioneer in virtual reality for this research. The Ministry of Defense in the United Kingdom has been using VR in military training since the 1980s. The United States military announced the Dismounted Soldier Training System in 2012. It was cited as the first fully immersive military VR training system.
NASA has used VR technology for twenty years. Most notable is their use of immersive VR to train astronauts while they are still on Earth. Such applications of VR simulations include exposure to zero-gravity work environments and training on how to spacewalk. Astronauts can even simulate what it is like to work with tools in space while using low cost 3D printed mock up tools.
Flight and vehicular applications
Flight simulators are a form of VR pilot training. They can range from a fully enclosed module to a series of computer monitors providing the pilot’s point of view. By the same token, virtual driving simulations are used to train tank drivers on the basics before allowing them to operate the real vehicle. Similar principles are applied in truck driving simulators for specialized vehicles such as firetrucks. As these drivers often have less opportunity for real-world experience, VR training provides additional training time.
VR technology has many useful applications in the medical field. Simulated surgeries allow surgeons to practice their technical skills without any risk to patients. Numerous studies have shown that physicians who receive surgical training via VR simulations improve dexterity and performance in the operating room significantly more than control groups. Through VR, medical students and novice surgeons have the ability to view and experience complex surgeries without stepping into the operating room. On April 14, 2016, Shafi Ahmed was the first surgeon to broadcast an operation in virtual reality; viewers followed the surgery in real time from the surgeon’s perspective. The VR technology allowed viewers to explore the full range of activities in the operating room as it was streamed by a 4K 360fly camera.
David Em was the first fine artist to create navigable virtual worlds in the 1970s. His early work was done on mainframes at Information International, Inc., Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and California Institute of Technology. Jeffrey Shaw explored the potential of VR in fine arts with early works like Legible City (1989), Virtual Museum (1991), and Golden Calf (1994).
Virtopia was the first VR Artwork to be premièred at a film festival. Created by artist/researcher Jacquelyn Ford Morie with researcher Mike Goslin, it debuted at the 1992 Florida Film Festival. Subsequent screenings of a more developed version of the project were at the 1993 Florida Film Festival and at SIGGRAPH 1994’s emerging tech venue, The Edge. Morie was one of the first artists to focus on emotional content in VR experiences.
Canadian artist Char Davies created immersive VR art pieces Osmose (1995) and Ephémère (1998). Maurice Benayoun‘s work introduced metaphorical, philosophical or political content, combining VR, network, generation and intelligent agents, in works like Is God Flat? (1994), “Is the Devil Curved?” (1995), The Tunnel under the Atlantic (1995), and World Skin, a Photo Safari in the Land of War (1997). Other pioneering artists working in VR have include Knowbotic Research, Rebecca Allen and Perry Hoberman. In 2015, futurist Keram Malicki-Sánchez created the FIVARS Festival of International Virtual & Augmented Reality Stories the first Virtual and Augmented Reality showcase dedicated wholly to narrative forms endemic to spatialized media. Drawing from an international pool of sources, the festival was responsible for the publication and distribution of many notable pieces, including Adam Cosco’s “Knives,” “SONAR 360,” and “Pearl” among others. In 2016, the first project in Poland called The Abakanowicz Art Room was realized – it was documentation of the art office Magdalena Abakanowicz made by Jarosław Pijarowski and Paweł Komorowski.
In fiction and popular culture
There have been many novels that reference and describe forms of virtual reality. Neal Stephenson‘s Snow Crash (1992) and Ernest Cline‘s Ready Player One (2011) are novels that have been influential for VR engineers working in the early 21st century.
In the 1980s and 1990s, Cyberpunks viewed the technology as a potential means for social change. The recreational drug subculture praised virtual reality not only as a new art form, but as an entirely new frontier.
Concerns and challenges
Virtual reality technology faces a number of challenges, including health and safety, privacy and technical issues. Long-term effects of virtual reality on vision and neurological development are unknown; users might become disoriented in a purely virtual environment, causing balance issues; computer latency might affect the simulation, providing a less-than-satisfactory end-user experience; navigating the non-virtual environment (if the user is not confined to a limited area) might prove dangerous without external sensory information. There have been rising concerns that with the advent of virtual reality, some users may experience virtual reality addiction. From an economic and financial perspective, early entrants to the virtual reality market may spend a significant amount of time and money on the technology. If it is not adopted by enough customers, the investment will not pay off.
Health and safety
There are many health and safety considerations of virtual reality. Most virtual reality systems come with consumer warnings, including: seizures; developmental issues in children; trip-and-fall and collision warnings; discomfort; repetitive stress injury; and interference with medical devices.
A number of unwanted symptoms have been caused by prolonged use of virtual reality, and these may have slowed proliferation of the technology. For example, in 1995, Nintendo released a gaming console known as the Virtual Boy. Worn as a headpiece and connected to a typical controller, the Virtual Boy received much criticism for its negative physical effects, including “dizziness, nausea, and headaches”. Virtual reality sickness (also known as cybersickness) occurs when a person’s exposure to a virtual environment causes symptoms that are similar to motion sicknesssymptoms. The most common symptoms are general discomfort, headache, stomach awareness, nausea, vomiting, pallor, sweating, fatigue, drowsiness, disorientation, and apathy. Other symptoms include postural instability and retching. Virtual reality sickness is different from motion sickness in that it can be caused by the visually induced perception of self-motion; real self-motion is not needed. It is also different from simulator sickness; non-virtual reality simulator sickness tends to be characterized by oculomotor disturbances, whereas virtual reality sickness tends to be characterized by disorientation. A 2016 publication assessed the effects of exposure to 2D vs 3D dissection videos on nine pathology resident physicians, using self-reported physiologic symptoms. Watching the content in 3D vs 2D did not increase simulator sickness. Although the average simulator sickness questionnaire score did increase with time, statistical analysis does not suggest significance.
The persistent tracking required by all VR systems makes the technology particularly useful for, and vulnerable to, mass surveillance. The expansion of VR will increase the potential and reduce the costs for information gathering of personal actions, movements and responses. In networked VR spaces with capacity for public interaction, there is the potential for unexpected modifications of the environment.
Conceptual and philosophical concerns
In addition, there are conceptual, and philosophical considerations and implications associated with the use of virtual reality. What the phrase “virtual reality” means or refers to can be ambiguous. Mychilo S. Cline argued in 2005 that through virtual reality techniques will be developed to influence human behavior, interpersonal communication, and cognition. In the book The Metaphysics of Virtual Reality by Michael R. Heim, seven different concepts of virtual reality are identified: simulation, interaction, artificiality, immersion, telepresence, full-body immersion, and network communication. As we spend more and more time in virtual space, there could be a gradual “migration to virtual space”, resulting in important changes in economics, worldview, and culture. Philosophical implications of VR are discussed in books, including Philip Zhai‘s Get Real: A Philosophical Adventure in Virtual Reality (1998) and Digital Sensations: Space, Identity and Embodiment in Virtual Reality (1999), written by Ken Hillis.
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