Virtual reality: More virtual than real

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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."


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.

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