Virtual reality: More virtual than real

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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