What is virtual reality/augmented reality?
While this question may seem pointless and entirely self-explanatory for the more technologically inclined, the majority of the public seems to have a skewed perception of what this technology truly is. Due in large part to films and TV shows, we are led to believe that this tech can transport us to different worlds, let us feel things that aren’t there, and let us get lost in a digital plane of existence. Movies like Ready Player One show us a world in which many of its characters live completely in VR, living a fantasy entirely disconnected from real life. But this isn’t truly, at least not yet, a realistic depiction of the technology and how it works. In reality, many of us are already using VR/AR on a regular basis and just haven’t noticed. So let’s get into what this technology really is.
In the simplest terms, virtual reality, often shortened to VR, is a digital, simulated environment that can be viewed in a full 360-degree view . Once coded, this simulated environment can be viewed through a Head-Mounted Display, or HMD for short. These devices typically take the shape of a headset that is placed on the head and over the eyes. Acting as a sort of mask over your eyes to block out the real world, a VR headset houses displays each of your eyes a slightly different image of the simulated environment, in order to give the illusion of stereoscopy , the use of two small screens or one larger screen with a divider that allows for a flat image to have depth . Combining this with accelerometers and other sensors for head and eye tracking, also known as “six degrees of freedom tracking” (6DoF) , the use of an HMD allows a user to be far more immersed in whatever content he/she is viewing . As long as the computer inside a VR headset is capable of maintaining a minimum of sixty frames per second (how quickly the screens’ image refreshes) and displaying a 100 or 110-degree field of view , the simulated environment will feel more or less traversable and smooth. However, tricking your brain into believing the virtual environment is real is a different story, as the graphical quality of most VR worlds is still quite unrealistic.
The three main types of virtual reality content are:
- Non-Immersive Virtual Reality 
- Semi-Immersive Virtual Reality 
- Fully Immersive Virtual Reality 
Non-immersive virtual reality is currently the most common type of virtual reality, as it requires the least amount of equipment. When experiencing this type of content, the user’s entire environment is computer generated and only their sense of sight (and sometimes sound) is affected. The main type of non-immersive virtual reality is video games .
Semi-immersive virtual reality is rarer than its more accessible counterpart, as the barrier for entry is far higher. While this type of virtual reality still takes advantage of a computer-generated environment, it introduces the use of other equipment, such as flight simulators for pilot trainees. This type of virtual reality is mainly used in education .
Fully-immersive virtual reality is considered the future of VR and is yet to be carried out successfully. The goal of this type of virtual reality is to convince a user’s brain into believing a simulated world is actually real-life. To accomplish this, fully-immersive VR would need to invoke multiple senses, including, but not limited to sight, sound, smell, and touch. This type of virtual reality would have many uses, but it being primarily worked on as an entertainment tool .
Well, then you might ask, what in the world is Augmented Reality then? What’s the difference between VR and AR? Augmented reality, or AR for short, is considered a similar technology to VR, however, where it differs from its counterpart is its level of immersion. Unlike virtual reality, augmented reality does not block out the real world, but instead adds simulated objects to our real-life environment. Many things can be labelled as “augmented reality”, even games such as Pokemon Go . Because a headset isn’t always necessary, any user with a device that allows for the placement of digital overlays into their world can experience AR. A great example of this is furniture companies, particularly online ones, that allow prospective customers to use their phones to view furniture pieces in their rooms before purchasing. “Mixed reality”, the technology that blends the real and digital world, is also a sector of AR that is growing fast. While it is slightly more intrusive, typically necessitating some type of glasses or headset, this tech allows for objects to be placed overlayed into the real world in a more realistic and immersive way, essentially blending VR into the real world . The uses for this type of technology are endless, but one of the most popular sectors for advancement is the use of mixed reality in corporate settings, where meetings could be held between individuals all across the world. Another sector where augmented reality is being widely explored is the healthcare sector, where future medical professionals can see three-dimensional images of body systems in real time without opening up a patient . On top of this, the retail, manufacturing, military, and automobile industries are all sectors where augmented reality/mixed reality is being used already as training tools .
All in all, virtual reality and augmented reality are fast-growing technologies that aim to improve many parts of everyday life. While the success of many extended reality projects, such as Meta’s (formerly FaceBook) line of Quest headsets and software , can be contested, it is clear that tech companies are not going to stop trying to reach the next evolution of the tech. Whether it’s the head’s-up display in your car , the website you use to try on sunglasses, or the video games you play, VR/AR is all around us, whether we like it or not. Extended reality sure seems like the future, but what about its past? In my next blog post, I will be taking a step back into the history and meteoric rise of this sector and how it became as widespread as it is now. See you then!
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