by Patrícia Iliašová
Although I can hear the voice of the instructor, who hands me the controllers of the HTC Vive while explaining which button does what, I find it very easy to forget the reality around me. The small, rather dark room along with the people in it quickly disappears and one forgets how they look with headphones over their heads and a rather large headset attached to the computer with a cable that casually hangs above them. Not even occasional laughs are a great disturbance when the elevator doors open up and I find myself on the top floor of a tall business centre, with the view of the entire city below me, but with only a thin plank for me to stand on. The instructor dares me to jump, but my knees are trembling, and I can feel my heartbeat becoming quicker, although I am aware of the fact that I am still in that room and the plank is just an illusion.
It is not difficult these days to encounter a place where virtual reality (VR) technology is available to the general public. In larger cities it seems to be a very popular business idea to offer the experience of VR. These places are visited by friends, couples and often rented out for team-buildings or parties. These businesses are however only suitable for entertainment and a basic introduction to virtual reality, as an hour-long experience is insufficient for unveiling the full potential of this technology. On the other hand, it is a good way of acquainting oneself with a product that might change the future of our society.
The History of Virtual Reality
Before advancing any further, it is important to understand what exactly virtual reality technology is. The key feature of this technology, according to Burdea and Coiffet, is its “real-time interactivity,” which can be understood as the ability of the simulation of “a realistic-looking world” created by computer to respond to “the user’s input” in real time (2). This fascinating concept is perhaps not as overwhelming for people nowadays who are surrounded by technological miracles of all kinds on a daily basis. To them, VR may seem like the next logical step in technological development, mainly because of the confusing portrayal of it and other technologies in science-fiction movies. The tempo with which the progress is advancing today is too high for an ordinary person to keep up with. Nevertheless, from a developer’s point of view, it is always a long and demanding process for an innovative idea to transform into an innovation – and so it is with VR.
The first attempts to develop this technology can be traced back to the 1960s. Back then, VR was mainly used by the military and NASA and it was not created with the intention of becoming a product which could be used for daily entertainment. This only became possible once the price of computers had sufficiently reduced, which did not happen until the year 2000. At that point, companies started investing in this technology and the idea that soon virtual reality could be used for purposes other than the training of astronauts and soldiers was born (Burdea and Coiffet 6-11).
Virtual Reality Today
Nowadays, global companies that dominate the technology market, such as Samsung, Sony or HTC, but also information technology corporates such as Google or Facebook are aware of the potential of VR, and in the last couple of years, they have begun investing heavily in the development of VR headsets. For example, Facebook bought the brand Oculus, a garage company which turned out to be a successful startup, in 2014, for $2 billion and released the Oculus Rift in spring 2016. HTC allied with Valve in order to create their VR headset called Vive which was released around the same time as Facebook’s Oculus, and Sony launched its VR set for PlayStation 4 in October 2016. Google and Samsung are also playing a part in this game with their more affordable VR headsets designed for smartphones; Samsung’s Gear VR was released in November 2015 and Google’s Cardboard, which is the cheapest virtual reality headset of all, selling for only $15, has been available in United States since June 2014.
While some of these companies are focusing on making this technology as accessible as possible for everyday use, others invest in the improvement and development of virtual reality in order to make it useful in other fields of industry, besides gaming and entertainment. Travel and real estate are some of the fields which are already experimenting with VR and will most probably be transformed by this technology in the future. The idea is that within a few years, it will no longer be necessary to leave one’s bed in order to see the apartment they are interested in, or the hotel in which they would like to spend their vacation. It can be said that wherever 3D modulation is necessary, virtual reality can be helpful. For example, here you can see the first application for Vive created by Ikea called Ikea VR Experience, which allows the user to try out their new kitchen before they even buy it.
However, making people’s lives even more comfortable than they already are is not the only purpose of VR. The ability of VR to create the impression of a real experience is useful in medicine, where virtual reality is used for both educational and therapeutic purposes. There are studies on the use of this technology for the training of surgeons, and also for anxiety and trauma treatments.
Still, major focus and attention is dedicated to the benefits of VR for individuals rather than society as a whole with gaming and entertainment being the main point of interest both for the creators and the users. Although virtual reality technology is still quite new, spending on VR headsets and VR entertainment is forecast to rise considerably in the future, which will logically mean that a VR headset will become a must-have, just like smartphones or computers are these days.
But what can a VR set do for people that the devices we are already using now cannot supply? The potential success of this technology seems to be derived from the fact that visualisation and images in particular are becoming increasingly popular in our culture. According to Peter Brantley, the image “is the default format choice” these days (18). But VR offers more than just a static visual experience. It is its ability to prevent the actual reality from disrupting the user’s experience which helps the user to be fully captivated in the game or any activity VR offers. While one may feel that books, movies and even video games allow them to identify with the characters introduced in them, the simulation which one experiences with VR has a deeper psychological effect, which explains its frequent use for rehabilitation and anxiety treatments.
Of course, there is some controversy surrounding VR, as with smartphones and computers, and many sceptics argue whether this type of entertainment will make people even more antisocial than they already are. Still, we can probably expect that in the following years, VR headsets will become compulsory equipment for ordinary computer and smartphone users.
Brantley, Peter. “The VR Revolution: Will Virtual Reality and the Rise of Visual Culture Change Publishing?.” Publishers Weekly, no. 47, 2015, p. 18. EBSCOhost. Accessed 14 March 2017.
Burdea, Grigore, and Philippe Coiffet. Virtual reality technology. Hoboken, NJ: J. Wiley-Interscience, 2003. Google Book Search. Web. 31 March 2017.