Virtual reality has long been thought to be nothing more than a glorified arcade game—a “dreamy escape” from reality. In this respect, the phrase “virtual reality” is a misnomer; proper names would be “alternative reality,” “manufactured reality,” or “computer simulation.” The most important thing to remember about virtual reality is that it isn’t a fad or fantasy that will whisk people away to alternate worlds; it is a hard-edged practical technology that has been routinely used by scientists, doctors, dentists, engineers, architects, archaeologists, and the military for nearly 30 years. What will we be able to accomplish with it?
Training for difficult and risky vocations is difficult. How can you prepare for a journey to space, a jumbo aircraft landing, a parachute jump, or brain surgery in a safe manner? All of them are excellent prospects for virtual reality applications. As we’ve seen, Flight cockpit simulators were among the first VR applications; they can be traced back to mechanical simulators constructed by Edwin Link in the 1920s. Surgeons, like pilots, are now frequently taught using virtual reality. In a 2008 survey of 735 surgical trainees from 28 nations, 68 percent thought the option to train with virtual reality was “good” or “great,” while only 2% stated it was “useless” or “unsuitable.”
Unless you’re willing to sit with your eyes fastened to an electron microscope, anything that happens at the atomic or molecular size is practically invisible. But what if you want to experiment with the molecular equivalent of LEGO to create new materials or drugs? That’s another apparent application for virtual reality. You can snap complicated molecules together directly before your eyes instead of battling with numbers, equations, or two-dimensional illustrations of chemical structures. Frederick Brooks created GROPE, a project to build a VR system for examining the interactions between protein molecules and pharmaceuticals, at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in the 1960s.
In addition to its use in surgical training and drug development, virtual reality enables telemedicine (monitoring, examining, or operating on patients remotely). A natural result of this is a surgeon in one place connected to a virtual reality control panel and a robot holding the knife in another location (perhaps across the continent). The most well-known example is the da Vinci surgical robot, introduced in 2009 and has already been implanted in thousands of hospitals worldwide. When collaboration is presented, a group of the world’s greatest surgeons can collaborate on a particularly challenging operation—a form of WikiSurgery, if you will!
Although technology is still in its early stages, virtual reality has already been used to treat a variety of mental disorders (including schizophrenia, agoraphobia, and phantom limb pain) and stroke victims and those suffering from degenerative illnesses like multiple sclerosis.
Architecture and industrial design
Architects made models out of cardboard and paper; now, they’re more likely to create virtual reality computer models that you can walk through and explore. Similarly, designing automobiles, aircraft, and other sophisticated, expensive vehicles on a computer screen is often considerably less costly than modeling them in wood, plastic, or other real-world materials. Instead of merely building an immersive 3D visual model for people to view and explore, you’re generating a mathematical model that can be evaluated for aerodynamic, safety, and other aspects.
Games and amusements
From flight simulators to racing games, virtual reality has long been on the outside of the gaming industry, never quite good enough to transform the gaming experience, owing to sluggish processors, lackluster screens, and a shortage of reliable HMDs and datagloves. With the introduction of inexpensive new peripherals like the Oculus Rift, all of that may be about to change.