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See some real examples of Virtual Reality shopping apps; or for a look ahead, check out the 5 top Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality technology trends for 2019.

What is Virtual Reality?

Virtual Reality (VR) is the use of computer technology to create a simulated environment. Unlike traditional user interfaces, VR places the user inside an experience. Instead of viewing a screen in front of them, users are immersed and able to interact with 3D worlds. By simulating as many senses as possible, such as vision, hearing, touch, even smell, the computer is transformed into a gatekeeper to this artificial world. The only limits to near-real VR experiences are the availability of content and cheap computing power.

What’s the difference Between Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality?

Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality are two sides of the same coin. You could think of Augmented Reality as VR with one foot in the real world: Augmented Reality simulates artificial objects in the real environment; Virtual Reality creates an artificial environment to inhabit.

In Augmented Reality, the computer uses sensors and algorithms to determine the position and orientation of a camera. AR technology then renders the 3D graphics as they would appear from the viewpoint of the camera, superimposing the computer-generated images over a user’s view of the real world.

In Virtual Reality, the computer uses similar sensors and math. However, rather than locating a real camera within a physical environment, the position of the user’s eyes are located within the simulated environment. If the user’s head turns, the graphics react accordingly. Rather than compositing virtual objects and a real scene, VR technology creates a convincing, interactive world for the user.

Virtual Reality technology

Virtual Reality’s most immediately-recognizable component is the head-mounted display (HMD). Human beings are visual creatures, and display technology is often the single biggest difference between immersive Virtual Reality systems and traditional user interfaces. For instance, CAVE automatic virtual environments actively display virtual content onto room-sized screens. While they are fun for people in universities and big labs, consumer and industrial wearables are the wild west.

With a multiplicity of emerging hardware and software options, the future of wearables is unfolding but yet unknown. Concepts such Google Cardboard, Samsung GearVR and Epson Movario are leading the way but there are also players like Meta, Avegant Glyph, Daqri and Magic Leap who may surprise the industry with new levels of immersion and usability. Whomever comes out ahead, the simplicity of buying a helmet-sized device that can work in a living-room, office, or factory floor has made HMDs center stage when it comes to Virtual Reality technologies.

Virtual Reality and the importance of audio

Hearing is arguably more relevant than vision to a person’s sense of space and human beings react more quickly to audio cues than to visual cues. In order create truly immersive Virtual Reality experiences, accurate environmental sounds and spatial characteristics are a must. These lend a powerful sense of presence to a virtual world. To experience the binaural audio details that go into a Virtual Reality experience, put on some headphones and tinker with this audio infographic published by The Verge.

While audiovisual information is most easily replicated in Virtual Reality, active research and development efforts are still being conducted into the other senses. Tactile inputs such as omni-directional treadmills allow users to feel as though they’re actually walking through a simulation, rather than sitting in a chair or on a couch. Haptics, also known as kinesthetic or touch feedback, has progressed from simple spinning-weight “rumble” motors to futuristic ultrasound technology.

Major players in Virtual Reality

Oculus Rift, Oculus VR and Facebook

Perhaps the largest silhouette on the Virtual Reality horizon is cast by Oculus VR, the makers of the Oculus Rift headsets. Originally funded as a Kickstarter project in 2012, and engineered with the help of John Carmack (founder of Id Software, of Doom and Quake fame), the company became the de facto leader in Virtual Reality hardware for video games. After Facebook bought Oculus in 2014, social experiences via VR became an additional priority for the company. With their more recent acquisition of Surreal Vision, a 3D scene reconstruction research group from England, Oculus is poised to bring telepresence to the VR headset. While two versions of Oculus headsets have already been released to developers, with a third on the way, the customer version is set to be released in early 2016.


Microsoft HoloLens

Microsoft HoloLens is shaping up to be another formidable competitor in the Virtual Reality market. Unlike the Oculus Rift, Microsoft’s ambitious research teams are basing their display on holographic technology. While this lends itself to Augmented Reality (or, as Microsoft prefers to call it, “mixed reality”) more than VR, it’s clear that the display technology alone is meant to be a jumping-off point for virtual experiences to come.

Sony’s Project Morpheus

Sony’s entry into the market, Project Morpheus. attempts to streamline what Oculus offers, with integration into the already-successful PlayStation game systems. Like the Oculus Rift, the Morpheus headset is scheduled for early 2016.

The Vive by Valve

Valve, makers of the wildly successful Steam platform for games distribution on PC, Mac OS, and Linux, have also thrown their hat in the ring. The Vive, to be manufactured by HTC, is to be the first of many headsets on an open platform called SteamVR. While development kits are to be released by the end of 2015, it’s not yet clear when the consumer version will become available.

Samsung GearVR

While the above VR companies have all shown promise in immersive head-mounted display technology, they tend to focus on the deep end of the pool: powerful computers or desktop PCs with gaming hardware. Samsung’s approach to VR has been different: the Gear VR uses Oculus head-tracking technology in combination with Android smartphones like the Galaxy Note 4 to power mobile VR experiences. Instead of dedicated display technology, lenses allow the phone’s screen to act as a stereoscopic display, making the device simpler and less expensive than other options.

Google Cardboard

Not to be left out, Google’s entry into VR came as a surprise during last year’s I/O conference. The Google Cardboard is a do-it-yourself approach to mobile VR, is an enclosure for Android phones that can be built for less than twenty dollars. Several demos and games for the Cardboard SDK are already available on the Google Play store, and while the experience isn’t quite as immersive or groundbreaking as other companies’ offerings, Google’s ad hoc Virtual Reality experiment shows a surprising amount of interest in even basic VR technology.

Magic Leap

On the other end of the Google spectrum, their 2014 investment in the mysterious Magic Leap startup (to the tune of $540 million along with a few of its venture capital partners) promises innovation in “light field” display technology, 3D mapping, gesture tracking, and telepresence. While their only engagement with the public so far has been a highly controversial Augmented Reality demo, many high-profile names such as venerable science fiction author Neal Stephenson are attached to Magic Leap, and their presence in the industry continues to challenge well-established brands, making them an unusual, but a noteworthy company.

Carl Zeiss, Archos, Razer and Avegant

Many other companies are developing Virtual Reality headsets and other peripherals. From recognizable names, like Carl Zeiss and Archos to lesser-known companies such as Razer and Avegant, the coming VR renaissance electrifies an entire ecosystem of hardware manufacturers, software developers, and content providers.

How Virtual Reality is being used today

Unsurprisingly, the video games industry is one of the largest proponents of Virtual Reality. Support for the Oculus Rift headsets has already been jerry-rigged into games like Skyrim and Grand Theft Auto, but newer games like Elite: Dangerous come with headset support built right in. Many tried-and-true user interface metaphors in gaming have to be adjusted for VR (after all, who wants to have to pick items out of a menu that takes up your entire field of vision?), but the industry has been quick to adapt as the hardware for true Virtual Reality gaming has become more widely available.

Virtual Reality and data visualization

Scientific and engineering data visualization has benefited for years from Virtual Reality, although recent innovation in display technology has generated interest in everything from molecular visualization to architecture to weather models.

VR for aviation, medicine, and the military

In aviation, medicine, and the military, Virtual Reality training is an attractive alternative to live training with expensive equipment, dangerous situations, or sensitive technology. Commercial pilots can use realistic cockpits with VR technology in holistic training programs that incorporate virtual flight and live instruction. Surgeons can train with virtual tools and patients, and transfer their virtual skills into the operating room, and studies have already begun to show that such training leads to faster doctors who make fewer mistakes. Police and soldiers are able to conduct virtual raids that avoid putting lives at risk.

Virtual Reality and the treatment of mental illness

Speaking of medicine, the treatment of mental illness, including post-traumatic stress disorder, stands to benefit from the application of Virtual Reality technology to ongoing therapy programs. Whether it’s allowing veterans to confront challenges in a controlled environment, or overcoming phobias in combination with behavioral therapy, VR has a potential beyond gaming, industrial and marketing applications to help people heal from, reconcile and understand real-world experiences.

Dr. Brian Jackson is a Senior Research Scientist at Marxent. He holds a PhD in Computer Science with a focus in computer vision.