Since its first introduction in 1960's, virtual reality has come a long way in both immersive and non-immersive fields, but does anyone know how far it really has come in the past four decades? From Atari to the CAVE system, the world of virtual reality is an amazing and rapidly expanding universe of endless possibilities, scientific leaps, and new venues of human imagination, but how does it really work? How has VR (virtual reality) shaped our world in the past, and how will it affect our future? The answers to these questions can only be found in the history of the science, the ways in which it is being used today, and the creation and application of the science itself.
Virtual reality, one of the hottest topics in the sciences of the modern age, has been around longer than one might think. In fact, the first system, unimaginatively called “Sensorama,” was created in the early 1960's by a man in the cinema business with the name of Morton Heilig. It was a crude machine, the Sensorama, and a simple one. Its primary function was to entertain people with the feeling of riding a motorcycle with the wind blowing across their face and the bounce of potholes in the road. The 'wind' was created simply by a fan installed in the machine, and the scenery was a projection of images taken with a 35-mm camera and projected onto a screen. The Sensorama was even equipped with a sound system, but in any case it did not last long. Heilig did not have the funds to support his creation or advance it, and the Sensorama consequently met with very little success. However, Morton Heilig's creation opened the doors to the advancement of virtual reality in all of its grandeur.
In the modern world, Virtual Reality is separated into two types of technology, though the lines between the two are rapidly blurring. The two classes, immersive and non-immersive, refers to the extent in which the user of the system becomes part of the virtual world. Non-immersive, the earlier of the two classes (under which the Sensorama fits), is a form of virtual reality on which the simulated world is presented on a flat screen rather than a three dimensional view. Non-immersive technology includes much of what is considered common in the modern household, such as internet tours and video games.
However, non-immersive VR technology is not just for entertainment. Among many other things, VR has been used for training in some of the most prestigious sciences in the world, particularly the aeronautical and medical fields. NASA has, even as far back as the first Apollo mission, used flight simulators in place of space shuttles to train prospective astronauts, a much safer and cheaper alternative than sending them into space as pilots of a real aircraft. Not only does NASA use flight simulators, but most larger airplane businesses do as well. Though the history of VR in medical fields is not as extensive, VR is also used when training doctors in addition to on-the-floor study of the science. Many dangerous operations are at first practiced using VR technology long before the med-student is ever allowed near a patient! The extensive uses of VR do not stop even there. Virtual reality is even used by meteorologists to predict the weather! Many of the radar images shown on screen during a newscast are actually images created from data gathered by weather satellites, not actual images taken from above Earth's atmosphere. This application of VR aids a meteorologist greatly in demonstrating weather patterns to those not as well educated in the atmospheric sciences.
However, these are only uses of non-immersive VR. There is yet a whole different class of virtual reality that has not even been touched upon. This class is immersive technology, an amazing application of science in which the user actually feels like they are within the projected reality. Characteristics of immersive VR include the following:
HMD’s are among the oldest and most recognizable form of VR. Created by VPL Research, Inc. in 1965, the HMD was not available commercially for another twenty-four years until it was released as the “EyePhone” system in 1989. HMD’s operate by two screens in placed in front of the eyes that display a virtual world with views that change as the user moves via a motion tracker located on the device.
The DataGlove, another form of early VR that has survived through the years, is used in most immersive VR systems around the globe as a way to interact with the virtual world. A DataGlove consists of a lightweight fabric and optical wiring (the most recent of which was invented by Charles Blanchard working for VPL Research, Inc.) used to record the movements of each finger and knuckle on the hand of the user.
The technology used in the DataGlove is also incorporated into BOOM system (created by FakeSpace), a type of immersive VR using a combination of a viewing box and a DataGlove connected together through a multi-link arm. In order to use the BOOM system, one simply has to place their hand inside the Glove and put their eyes to the opening on the viewing box. Concealed inside the box are two stereoscopic screens that allow the user to view the virtual world. The image displayed on the screens changes as the DataGlove moves taking the viewing box with it. Many people can collectively use the BOOM system at once, making it ideal for teaching across nations, especially classes which require hands-on experience.
Another type of immersive VR well-suited for multiple users is the CAVE (Cave Automatic Virtual Environment) system. A multi-purpose piece of technology, the CAVE system operates through a room-sized cubicle with images projected onto the walls. Viewing points change via a tracking device on a pair o lightweight stereo glasses worn on the head of the user. As the CAVE system is the size of a real room, this makes it possible for the user (or even users) to actually move around in their virtual environment, even go for a walk on the moon without leaving Earth.
A similar kind of technology, the C6 lab at Iowa State University is a wondrous piece of man-made genius that allows companies such as John Deere to view a proposed project and find flaws with it without ever spending a dime on materials. This miracle is made possible through 6 stereoscopic screens on each of the four walls, ceiling, and floor. The C6 is also equipped with a three-dimensional sound system that allows audio effects to come from anywhere in the room. The C6 is completely free of wires, including DataGloves and tracking devices.
Remarkable as they are, these systems and the multitude of others like them are nothing compared to what the future holds for VR in all of its uses. The sole focus of many research divisions around the world, virtual reality's future is a world full of new opportunities and operations at every turn. One research center, the ESPIRIT Humanoid project (completed in 1995), even worked on creating virtual humans that interact with their environment in a realistic fashion. Just consider the uses of such a project, including medical applications like how long-term effects of treating your body poorly could be replicated in a matter of days, hours, or even minutes! This is only one project of the many that are in operation around the world, in places like the University of Illinois (USA), Iowa State University (USA), the University of Aizu (Japan), and the University of Alberta (Canada) as well as many others.
As far as virtual reality has come, it still has a long way to go. However, with all of the research that is going on around the world, that future may not be far off. Virtual reality, a rapidly expanding universe of nearly endless possibilities, is constantly growing, changing, and evolving. The world has only barely scratched the surface of the many uses of VR, and as history has proven, VR will continue to grow into a major part of today’s society. With virtual reality, the possibilities are endless.
22 March 2004 <http://ligwww.epfl.ch/~thalmann/humanoid.html>
Jortberg, Charles A.
Virtual Reality and Beyond
Minnesota: Abdo & Daughters
On the Net Resources in Virtual Reality - Research
22 December 1999
17 March 2004 <http://www.hitl.washington.edu/projects/knowledge_base/research.html>
New York: Touchstone
19 March 2004 <http://ei.cs.vt.edu/~history/Tate.VR.html>
UM-VRL: Virtual Reality Lab - University of Michigan
11 February 2004
22 March 2004 <http://www-vrl.umich.edu/>
Created by Brandi C.
March 25, 2004
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