Virtual reality: More virtual than real

Remember virtual reality? The idea that science could create a virtual world of sight, sound, smell and touch was hot two decades ago, then completely fizzled out.

"VR made a huge splash in the 90s, but collapsed into near obscurity a few years later. The term VR even became a dirty word for some time, giving way to the less-hyped term immersion," says Paul Mlyniec, president of California-based Digital ArtForms.

"There's not much new happening in virtual reality," adds Brian Blau, research director of consumer technology at Gartner. "I did a bit of research on VR recently and have been working in and around VR for many years, and there just isn't much happening these days, except maybe in education and science; certainly not much happening in the consumer space."

Blau defines VR as "immersive environments where the user either wears a head mounted display that shows a completely synthetic environment, or the user is in a cave-like room where all the walls show the graphical environment, typically one that is very different from where the user is currently sitting or standing."

So, what went wrong?

Adib Ghubril, research director of semiconductors at Gartner, believes the real problem is that VR is still trying to solve a 3D problem using 2D ideas. Wall-to-wall wrap-around displays, helmets with visors that go from temple-to-temple, active goggle displays that select which frame each eye can view none of these tackle the issue at hand, which is how to create a system that arouses the senses in the same way a natural environment does.

"Such a system must generate holograms in motion, provide multi-layered audio, compound scents, and haptic (touch) feedback. Most of these underlining technologies are still nascent and, thus, stunting the impact of VR," he says.

According to Ghubril, the goal of virtual reality technology is to enable the user to learn about or experience a target environment in a safe and controlled way that minimizes the costs associated with a hostile (battlefield), harsh (mine), specialized (cockpit ), not readily accessible (distant tourist destination), or fantastical (imaginary) surrounding.

"To my mind," Ghubril says, "There's nothing particularly hot out there in VR as I conceive it. Sure, gesture and gaze control are interesting and necessary technologies to achieve immersion, but what would be really compelling is something that stimulates all of our senses. Unfortunately, I think we are very far off from attaining that state of make believe."

But VR isn't dead either, we might look back one day and say that the re-birth of virtual reality was sparked by something that we take somewhat for granted these days: the Nintendo Wii.

Tuong H. Nguyen, principal analyst of consumer technology at Gartner, points out that the only place where VR is really happening today in terms of the consumer market is "on the gaming front."

Microsoft Kinect

Mlyniec argues that Nintendo's grand gamble on the Wii kicked off a wave of revived interest in motion-enabled interaction. Both Sony and Microsoft followed suit and the result has been consumer-level devices that support genuine 3D interaction. And, what used to cost $5,000, now costs $100.

"Whatever you may think of the Wii, Kinect, and these others, they have raised awareness and consumer appetites for native 3D interaction," Mlyniec says. "And controller-less 3D interaction is, at least, one Holy Grail of this industry. In fact, if I had a nickel for every email I got about Leap Motion's vision-based tracking and gesture recognition system, I'd be rich. Plus, I'm hearing a lot more about head-mounted displays such as the Oculus Rift and those Razer Hydra controllers."

Nguyen adds, "I agree that the next step is a more immersive environment. For example, even though motion-based sensing technology allows us to make more intuitive movements to control the on-screen actions, it can be made more immersive by doing things like allowing you to turn your head to see around a corner."

The next wave

Leap (from Leap Motion) is one of the products that Mlyniec mentions as being in the forefront of today's VR industry. It's an iPod-sized, USB peripheral that creates a 3D interaction space of eight cubic feet, which precisely interacts with and controls software on a laptop or desktop computer.

"It's like being able to reach into the computer and pull out information as easily as reaching into a cookie jar," says Michael Buckwald, CEO and co-founder of Leap Motion. "Leap senses individual hand and finger movements independently, as well as items like a pen. In fact, it's 100 times more sensitive than existing touch-free products and technologies. It's like the difference between sensing an arm swiping through the air and being able to create a precise digital signature with a fingertip or pen."

Oculus Rift

Another contender is the Oculus Rift, an impressive virtual reality headset that delivers a truly immersive and compelling VR experience for video games. For example, users can't see the Rift screen because of the 110-degree field of view, which means no matter which direction they look, all they see is the game world.

"Virtual reality, as an industry, has not evolved as much as everyone hoped in the last 25 years," concedes Brendan Iribe, CEO of Oculus. "There are still a handful of impressive VR companies active today, but most are selling products at a price point reserved for Fortune 500 companies and the military. With the Rift, our primary goal is to allow the public to experience truly immersive VR gaming today, bringing VR back into the mainstream, at an affordable price."

VirtuSphere

One curious invention is a rolling cage called VirtuSphere where a person gets inside a sphere that rotates as they walk thru the virtual environment viewed on the head-mounted display.

Other products of interest include the Razer Hydra 3D game controllers from Sixense Entertainment that have 1-to-1 magnetic trackers with no line-of-sight limitations, the Playstation Move game controller from Sony, Innovega's iOptik contact lens, which enhances the human eye's normal vision capabilities plus enables wearers to better visualize their digital world, plus various brands and levels of data gloves, 3D controllers, haptics, rumble chairs, VR motion chairs, vision domes, stereoscopic 3D displays, and virtual reality simulators.

iOptik Contact Lens

"I think all this is right on," says Chris Silva, industry analyst at Altimeter Group. "We've seen Microsoft's Kinect take the path put forth by Nintendo and Wii and drive that forward in terms of what's possible for gaming. Users, on the other hand, have taken it further, using it as a tool for manipulation of data, interaction with learning environments, and even some training applications for medical robot manipulation. Microsoft has now ported that technology to the desktop with support for Kinect in Windows 8, and we're starting to see the technology make its way to other, more offline environments like books such as the Sony Wonderbook and the Popar books."

According to Nguyen, in the non-gaming VR environments, Gartner has seen applications in learning, modeling, and medicine. These VR environments allow users to see things that were not readily accessible before whether it's too far away, too expensive in real life, or too small.

One example is in molecular biology; specifically, 3D modeling of molecules. Any university student who has taken a chemistry class is familiar with the plastic models they must buy to help them visualize the molecules and compounds they're learning about. Now, instead of physical models, they have virtual ones.

And there are other real-world applications as well. Digital ArtForms, founded in 1998, is a visual simulation industry working with government agencies in advanced visualization and interface technologies. It has developed applications in design (immersive landscape design and immersive CAD), military (immersive command and control and C4ISR), and medicine (immersive 3D medical imaging, both local and remote). One of its products is an advanced 3D medical imaging platform called iMedic for surgeons and radiologists to examine pathology and read volumetric data captured with a CT scan (among other things).

Mlyniec adds, "On the drawing board is a new 2D/3D visualization and imaging platform we call GUI2x3, which will deliver first-class 2D and 3D interaction that is both controllerless and consistent. It will employ 2D and 3D multi-touch in a way that supports 3D applications such as diagnostic radiology and digital content creation for games and movies."

Two companies in this genre are Barco and Mechdyne, both are providers of visual information technologies that make virtual worlds a visible reality; that is, they develop audio visual, immersive 3D, networked, and collaborative visualization solutions.

Mechdyne's Plato Cave Visualization Center

For example, Mechdyne's Plato Cave Visualization Center at the Houston Methodist Hospital allows physicians to view 3D images of a patient's internal structures on a multi-touch table. And Barco's 360-degree flight simulator prepares fighter-jet pilots for combat. Visualization rooms, caves, engineering labs, virtual malls, advanced collaborative environments, and dual-view technologies now provide a wide spectrum of product simulations, architectural walk-throughs, and VR training for military, medical, and first responders.

Intelligent Decisions' Dismounted Soldier Training System

Intelligent Decisions, recently released the Dismounted Soldier Training System (VR military training) to 28 U.S. Army installations worldwide. Randolph Community College in North Carolina helps students practice their automotive painting techniques using a VR SimSpray tool. Iowa State University students train on virtual welding machines, firefighters are getting VR training on the Firefighter Command project at Georgia Tech, medical students learn surgical techniques from a virtual-reality surgical simulator.

So what about the future of VR? According to Nguyen, this question is really about user interfaces. Future interfaces will take advantage of a number of different technologies including voice and gesture. "I think the aforementioned technology will be a complementary technology rather than a competing one," he says.

Sartain is a freelance writer. She can be reached at julesds@comcast.net.

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