Virtual reality (VR) has progressed over recent years from an entertainment afterthought to a technology that's bringing real change to a number of industries.
The enhanced capabilities of these new technologies will continue to impact all areas of society, from medicine and science through to entertainment. This is a technology that can overhaul how we approach problems, across a number of fields.
This article will explore three sectors where VR is having an effect, and where it's likely to progress from there.
It's a good idea, however, to understand exactly what VR is.
Defining virtual reality
At its core, VR is a computer-generated simulation of a 3D image that can interacted with via either a physical controller or motion controlled equipment.
The underlying idea, and the functionality that makes it that much more attractive than other viewing technologies, is the ability to generate a high level of immersion.
Once users place the headsets on (often called head-mounted displays (HMDs)) they're able to explore virtual environments. The most capable headsets use lenses to wrap images around the user's eyes, thus sealing out the outside world.
The virtual environments are able to display 3D images at life-like sizes, making any content appear especially real to the viewer.
As such, it's easy to see how this technology differs from traditional television screens and computer monitors. The ability to transfer users to an entirely different world makes VR useful for a wider array of applications in a number of different fields.
For example, the arts, science, medicine and entertainment can all take advantage of the VR medium. In medicine, surgeons can train on highly detailed 3D models of patients. In science, researchers can step into a virtual environment to visualise complicated concepts and theories.
The possibilities of VR are boundless.
Researchers involved in theoretical fields can often find it difficult to explain complex ideas and concepts, especially when communicating these to individuals outside the scientific community.
Commonly, these are things such as molecular models, equations or study results. The term for communicating these concepts and ideas is called scientific visualisation, and it's an area that VR can benefit significantly.
Researchers and scientists can use VR to communicate and demonstrate these ideas in a unique way, using immersive digital environments to visualise difficult concepts. Viewers can step into these digital worlds and physically walk around a 3D model of a molecule.
While VR headsets are still in trial phases, fields such as chemistry, physics, biology and astronomy will stand to benefit once they hit the market.
Other industries such as engineering can utilise the technologies in a similar way, for example by providing a detailed 3D model of a project. Engineers can investigate the model and make changes before a physical installation is rolled out.
This could be extremely useful in areas where development is expensive, as issues can be sorted before any construction goes ahead.
Medicine could be one of the fields to benefit the most from increased VR use, especially when it comes to training.
With VR headsets becoming increasingly capable at outputting detailed 3D images, training surgeons can use the devices to practice a variety of complex procedures. Unlike traditional surgical practice systems, VR allows nearly any scenario to be re-created virtually for training purposes.
This can be especially useful for emergency purposes, where it's necessary to teach practitioners how to deal with an unfolding situation quickly. Paramedics using such technologies will be able to better respond to an array of different medical situations.
Virtual reality was recently used for another purpose within the field of medicine, when a surgeon set up a patient with an Oculus Rift headset to take their mind off a local anaesthetic operation.
According to a recent article from the Guardian, Josefa Ramírez in Spain was having a knee arthroscopy operation performed, but was nervous about the procedure. Her surgeon Dr. Gerardo Garcés used a VR headset to distract her, performing the operation while she watched scenes of a night sky through the unit.
The most obvious sector for VR to be utilised, entertainment encompasses both films and video games. It's here where the VR industry is again taking off, following a slump in recent decades.
Headsets such as the Oculus Rift are pushing interest in the technologies and a number of companies are now working on headsets. This focused development means content producers are also jumping on board, announcing new content for the various HMD units.
Aside from VR games, it's important to look beyond, to the capabilities of the technology in the wider entertainment space.
Films, for example, could become significantly more immersive, with viewers able to walk around within the frame of a film.
When coupled with more immersive technologies, viewers can gain near true to life digital experiences. Here are just two of the inventive ways that VR is already changing the nature of visual entertainment.
The Wall – A Game of Thrones project
This VR installation utilised VR headsets, a physical set and fans to simulate an elevator ride in the HBO show, Game of Thrones. Viewers stepping into the project could participate in a digital experience that could never be achieved with traditional viewing technologies.
Zero Latency Inversion VR
Similar to the wall project detailed above, this is another physical use of VR that other technologies cannot match. Users put a headset on with special motion trackers, and use a prop gun with the same devices.
They're then released into a real warehouse, where they're forced to fight off digital zombies projected through the headset. This combination of the virtual and physical serves as a prime example of how VR technologies should be utilised.
It's still early days for the VR industry, but there's no denying that the possibilities are expansive. If developers of entertainment, science and medicinal VR projects continue to produce the same level of quality, the whole industry will stand to benefit.