“Virtual reality was once the dream of science fiction. But the internet was also once a dream, and so were computers and smartphones. The future is coming.”

– Mark Zuckerberg

Welcome to the world of virtual reality! I know the two words in the term sound quite the opposite and some of you must be wondering what it really is.  Well, at this point I can tell you that it is something very fascinating, exciting and revolutionizing. So take a deep breath before we go through this roller coaster ride of virtual reality.

When we watch or hear something on any modern day digital media like the television, computer or even a projector screen, we only get a sense of sight and sound. Am I right? Now, just imagine how would it feel like if it would be possible to add the sense of touch, taste or smell to it? For example, if you watch some delicious food being prepared on screen, how cool would it be to be able to experience the sense of smell or taste as and when you watch it being prepared on screen? I know you must be thinking, how is this even possible to get inside the virtual setup and experience a particular sensation. Trust me the same question got me pondering on this idea.

There must have been times when you watch a movie and get so involved in a particular character that you literally want to be in the place of that character and be able to take actions yourself. At some stage you must have got the feeling of entering the virtual world and experiencing how it feels like to be a real character in that world. For example most of us have grown up seeing our favourite superheroes and always admired their cool powers. I am sure a lot of us would have even fancied flying like Superman in a zero gravity environment or swinging around like Spiderman between buildings. All of these fantasies are no more a dream but indeed a possible reality with the advancement of virtual reality systems.

What is this new cool technology of virtual reality? According to Professor Frank Biocca, it is “the first step in a grand adventure into the landscape of imagination”. Well, at its most basic level, virtual reality (VR) is an experience generated by a computer meant to stand in for the physical reality around us. It is a new communication platform where we can communicate with the virtual world and experience the feeling of this world being real. By feeling truly present in the virtual world, we can share unbounded spaces and experiences with the people in our lives. Just imagine sharing not just moments with your friends online but entire experiences and adventures along with them with the help of virtual reality.

So you all must be wondering how this technology works and what goes on behind it to make the virtual world feel so real. At the heart of virtual reality are two main concepts – immersion and interaction.

Immersion refers to your sense of presence within a virtual world – How real does it seem? For example even if you don’t have fear of heights, I’m sure you would end up developing it if the character in the virtual world is climbing a steep cliff or is at the top floor of a high rise. If the simulated environment seems so real, then you would be forced to feel the same as the character would feel. We judge or experience through the information that we gather through our senses. If that information is consistent, reliable and convincing then our brains accept it as reality. And the more senses you can engage, the better the experience of connecting with the virtual world.

Interactivity – It is all about upto what extent you can affect the virtual world around you. Are you just a passive audience or can you interact with the objects, creatures, people and environment?  Generally speaking, the more interactive the experience, the more convincing it is. 

Both immersion and interaction create the illusion that you are in a different world.

Until recently, virtual reality had been something of a fantasy for storytellers and technologists. But not anymore. The discipline of virtual reality is a collection of a lot of ideas that date back nearly a century.  Even though a lot remains to be explored, still the technology is well in use and has several applications. One of the most widely used applications of virtual reality is in the gaming industry. Virtual reality exploded into the gaming industry over a year ago and is now gaining tremendous momentum. Virtual Reality gaming offer an interactive experience and delivers full immersion, 360-degree vision, increased realism, and excellent surround sound to the modern-day gamer. The speedy rise of the VR mania can be best summarized by an example from 2015, when the first virtual reality headset was launched for regular users. It was the Oculus Rift CV1 headset, and the entire first consignment of it was sold within 15 minutes from the presale release time. Unlike  games where gamers become a spectator entirely, VR provides gaming experiences in a three-dimensional environment that allows them to interact with the surroundings. The idea of VR lies in the fact that peripheral vision is accounted for, which creates the signature immersive effect. In 3D, by contrast, the entire field of view isn’t overlapped, thereby massively limiting the gamers’ visual involvement.

Having known what the basic idea behind this technology is and few of its applications, it is very important for us to know where we stand as of today with virtual reality and what can we still look forward to in the near future. Currently, the virtual reality experience comes at quite an unaffordable price for the masses. The headsets that are generally used for this experience require a high end performance PC at the moment. In the coming time, Oculus would roll out stand-alone headsets which eliminate this requirement of a high performance PC and also come at an affordable cost. It is also hoped that this technology can be applied to multiple disciplines like marketing, entertainment, education, engineering, fashion, training, art, simulation and many more. Currently, the user gets the sense of sight, sound and touch. However in the near future, new sensory devices to simulate smell and flavor could be tested. Well, the technology is only getting better, there’s no doubt about it.

I personally feel that this technology is quite new and still has a long way to go. When this technology is applied to different applications, it would make our lives more pleasurable, exciting and adventurous. This technology has quite a lot of potential to be a great success and also earn the trust and love of the people.

Written by

Pallav Pattnaik