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Virtual reality is a computer technology that immerses a user in an imagined or replicated world (like video games, movies, or flight simulation), or simulates presence in the real world (like gliding through the canals on a gondola in Venice, or attending a Grammy Awards ceremony). The user experiences VR through a headset, sometimes in combination with physical spaces or multi-projected environments, and is able to interact with the virtual world in real time. A fully immersive VR experience can provide synthetic stimuli to multiple physical senses of the user. The most common sensory displays in VR are visual, aural, haptic, and vestibular (balance).
In short, VR is a medium that puts you inside of the media. When VR is done well, your brain is going to treat that as if it were a real experience. It feels like you’re actually doing something. The following short video is a good introduction to VR, and will answer your most basic questions:
The key elements of experiencing VR — and differentiate it from other media — are a virtual world, immersion, sensory feedback (responding to user input), and interactivity.
A virtual world is a three-dimensional environment generated by a computer in which one can interact with others and create objects as part of that interaction.
In the medium of VR, the term “immersion” refers to both physical and mental sensation of being in an environment. In discussions of most media, “being immersed” generally refers to an emotional or mental state — a feeling of being involved in the experience. In the medium of VR, however, physical immersion is also the property of a VR system because participants physically interact with the virtual environment.
Physical immersion is a defining characteristic of virtual reality.
In VR, participants are provided with direct sensory feedback based on their physical positions and activities in the virtual world. A virtual display, for example, responds to a participant moving his or her head by updating the displayed image accordingly.
The difference between VR and other media is that in VR, we experience first-hand an imagined reality with many of our physical senses. These sensory feedbacks give participants the ability to observe the results of their activities in the medium. In other media such as movies, novels, radio, we experience perceived reality second-hand through imagining ourselves within the world presented through the medium.
In other words, VR is a medium that allows us to have a simulated experience of the physical reality. Because of this, VR allows us to purposefully reduce the danger of physical reality and to more safely create scenarios that are not possible in the real world.
For VR to seem authentic, it should be interactive in responding to users’ action in the virtual world. If the virtual environment responds to a user’s action in a natural manner, the sense of immersion will remain. If the virtual environment cannot respond quickly enough, the human brain will rapidly notice and the sense of immersion will diminish.
“What you see in the painting is a window into someone’s artistic interpretation of the world. In VR, you don’t see that person’s point of view through a window. You’re inside of it.” — Saschka Unseld, Director — Dear Angelica, Creative Director — Oculus Story Studio
Telepresence is an application that uses VR technology to virtually place the user somewhere else in space. The user is able to see and hear with the aid of remote sensing devices in a remote location from the first person point of view. They are able to interact and affect the remote environment by their actions.
In partnership with Jaunt, a cinematic VR content company, Paul McCartney released a 360-degree concert recording through a virtual reality app, which provides a VR experience where users felt like they were on stage with the rock star.
A collaborative VR environment refers to multiple users interacting within the same virtual space or simulation. Users can perceive and interact with one another within the simulation. The users’ representation is referred to as their avatar. The simulated world runs on several computers that are connected over the network. This allows users from different locations to participate in the same VR experience together.
The big screen is a social virtual desktop app that allows users to use their computer in VR. Users can work, play, hang out, and collaborate in virtual environments.
In general, VR is an especially suitable medium for problems that require manipulation of objects in a three-dimensional environment. Besides, one also can fully take advantages of its telepresence and virtual collaboration features to create more benefits for the application, if applicable. The following list is not meant to be exhaustive of the types of problem that VR can solve.
Insite VR allows architects to transform designs from major modeling software into three-dimensional VR environments, which they can then view in a life-like 3D image using certain VR headsets. This gives the architects a chance to “walk through” a design, as it were, and see how it would look when completed, so they can make changes. Insite VR also allows multiple VR users from remote locations to explore content together and collaborate virtually.
Through a collaboration with VR firm Matterport, the New York Times now offers virtual reality tours of some of its luxury real estate listings.
Pious uses VR for exposure therapy to overcome phobias. The VR platform provides mental health professionals with animated and live environments for exposure therapy while maintaining a safe and secure office environment. The therapists are able to get a real-time look at what their patient is seeing and adjust the experience as needed even during a session to ensure optimized results that meet the needs of each individual patient.
Another example is STRIVE, which was born out of Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab. STRIVE is a pioneer in VR training and has been used by many professional and college football teams to train athletes through VR experiences. An evaluation study of the effectiveness of VR training shows that STRIVE training led to a 30% point increase in recall of topics, from 70% to 100%.
With its telepresence property, VR can be utilized for streaming of live events (e.g., fashion shows, music concerts, sports events, industry conferences, and world affairs). Watching an event in VR makes a user feel like they’re physically attending the event with the best seat in the house. This helps solve the problem of limited seating at events and makes events essentially available to anyone and anywhere.
VRCNN partnered with NextVR, the leader in broadcasting live sports events and concerts in VR, to stream the first 2016 US Democratic presidential debate in VR which was watched across 121 countries. NextVR also has partnered with leaders in sports and entertainment, including the NBA, FOX Sports, Live Nation, International Champions Cup, to deliver live events in VR to fans globally.
In VR, people come together in a shared virtual environment and have natural conversations much as they would face-to-face. They are also able to interact in real-time with 3D items besides 2D objects such as PDF, PowerPoint documents. This allows remote individuals and groups to communicate ideas with each other more effectively and have more personal touch than traditional methods such as video conference, phone call, and traditional social media. On the consumer application side, besides Bigscreen — mentioned earlier in this post — examples of other social platforms for shared user experiences in VR include Against Gravity’s Rec Room, AltspaceVR, and Facebook Spaces.
LiveLike, an on-demand sports VR media content platform, now allows you to watch sports with your Facebook friends in VR with customizable avatars and spatialized audio. On the professional application side, WorldViz’s Schofield, currently in Beta, provides corporations with an immersive communication method in VR that allows effective collaboration between remote individuals and groups.
For example, in order to raise awareness of Syrian refugees’ struggles, United Nation partnered with VR firm Within (formerly VRSE) to produce Clouds Over Sidra. It is a VR film that features a twelve-year-old in the Za’atari camp in Jordan, home to 130,000 Syrians fleeing violence and war, and children make up half the camp’s population. Viewers are taken closer to the situation than a standard screen could ever convey, joining refugee children in their activities at school and families throughout the day. Results: A 2015 fundraising conference where Clouds Over Sidra was shown ended up raising $3.8 billion, over 70 percent more than projected. A UNICEF study shows that one in six people made donations after watching the video, which is twice the normal rate of giving.
Another example is the homeless project at Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab. To cultivate empathy, a VR experiment was designed to have participants simulate being homeless and riding a bus. In fact, it was the Empathy element that first drove me to learn more about the potentials of VR. I hope you enjoyed this post and gained a basic understanding of what VR is and its benefits. I welcome any feedback or comments and look forward to connecting with people who share my passion for VR/AR. My another simple hope is that after reading this post, some of you who have never put on a VR headset will at least google “where to try VR headsets.” If you are in the New York area, you can try Samsung Gear VR for free at Samsung 837. You also can pay a fee to try different VR headsets and VR experiences at Jump Into the Light and VR World. Or check out Ghostbusters at Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum for a hyper-immersive VR experience.
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