1. Virtual Reality mimics the Physical World using a Virtual World
Virtual Reality (VR) tries to replicate the “reality” of the physical world by using a “virtual” or synthetic world. The virtual world is generated by a computer (or mobile phones) using software and hardware technology. The virtual world is a combination of the scene and the objects that you interact with. For example the scene will include the room where you are sitting right now, as well as the outside world that you can see from the room. The objects will include the chair you are sitting on, the table, your smartphone or laptop being used to read this. To represent your “current you” in the virtual world, you need models of everything around you placed nicely in the same location as they are in the physical world! The following picture shows picture of a mall in the physical world and the corresponding image generated by the virtual model of the mall. Notice the similarities and differences between the two images including the objects in the scene, the environment and other elements. These are things that you might not have noticed when casually passing by the mall!
Now, take a minute to look around you and notice the physical world you are part of. Note the environment around you, the various objects you see and the interactions you have with them. If you want your current world in VR and want to talk on your mobile phone in VR, you need to have a “virtual model” of the mobile phone so that you can “see, feel and interact with” it in your VR application.
2. VR is not perfect! Impact of VR is dependent on closeness to Physical World...
The most important component that makes virtual reality effective is the level of “immersion” in the virtual world. Immersion is directly related to the closeness to the physical world situation that gives an illusion of reality. So, in our cell phone example, the closer the virtual mobile phone resembles the physical mobile phone, our brain is more likely to accept it as “real”. The closer your virtual room resembles the physical room, the higher the level of immersion. This aspect of immersion is what makes VR so powerful. This aspect also makes VR more demanding than traditional interactive applications as VR typically requires a much higher level of “fidelity” for it to be effective. Without a high level of fidelity, the effectiveness of VR is destroyed.
3. Modeling the Physical World is expensive!
Replicating all the physical world and objects it contains with a high level of fidelity is not a straightforward task. This effort can be extremely expensive and time consuming! After all, we are talking about replicating the nature as well as all the great things that mankind has created! That’s a lot of effort and cost
Depending on the application, the modeling effort can be prohibitively expensive. This can make or break the final outcome and is key to success in the VR business! There are various technologies available to help with the “digitization” effort with varying cost and fidelity tradeoffs. Since most physical world objects are not static, it is necessary to also ensure that the dynamism in the physical world is replicated in the virtual world. Take a look again at the picture of the mall mentioned above. Imagine you are standing in front of the mall and observe as the cars pass by, people moving around and the wind blowing on your face! Now notice the objects and the virtual scene in the second picture. Observe how some of the objects look different from the physical world and some are missing completely.
4. VR applications typically require only a subset of the Physical World to be modeled
Luckily, most real world VR applications require us to interact only with a subset of the physical world. E.g. a VR-based industrial training system only requires recreating the factory environment and the operations that the trainee can do on the equipment he is using. The VR training system doesn’t quite have to worry about replicating the environment outside the factory & the interactions the trainee has with his/her boss! Most VR applications focus on getting to a “good-enough” replication of the subset of the real world required. This is the subset required for solving the problem that the application addresses. In that sense, most VR applications incorporate some form of approximation to get to a good-enough level of fidelity required for the given problem. However, it is also critical that key elements should not be missed out. Otherwise the application will not be effective and the investment will be wasted!
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So far, we have looked at the aspect of modeling the physical world to create a virtual world. Now, let’s take a closer look on how VR connects with the human brain and makes the virtual appear as real.
5. VR technology “feeds” the human senses to give illusion of physical world
It’s important to do a quick refresher on how human brain perceives the physical world. Our perception of the external world is through our external senses. Traditionally, the 5 external senses include vision, hearing, touch, smell and taste. The picture shows the parts of human body responsible for these senses.
These senses get inputs from the physical world and send this information to our brain. The brain then derives meaning from this information to interpret the objects, determines the next action and sends these instructions to the corresponding part of the body (typically the limbs). Our brains have been trained to do this over the years and we live with this cycle of sense-interpret-decide-act without even being aware of it.
So, if the 5 senses get the same inputs from the VR system, the VR application will be able to replicate the whole of the real world in VR as perceived by our senses. Hence, the ideal VR system should be able to reproduce objects & scenes that we see, sounds that we hear, things that we smell and taste as well as things that we touch and interact with in the real world. This is exactly what modern VR technology achieves by providing the same inputs to the user as the
6. VR works by engaging dominant senses - vision and hearing
Out of the 5 senses, modern VR focuses on feeding two of our dominant senses – vision & hearing. Being able to provide support for sense of Smell, Touch & Taste are still works in progress by various researchers. There are some products being made available but the technology is still in its nascent stage. However, the good news is that combined, vision and hearing provide the biggest chunk of human perception, vision being the most dominant sense! There is
substantial research done in this area as shown in the following Infographic. “Vision and hearing are now the privileged sociable senses, whereas the other three are considered archaic sensory remnants with a merely private function, and they are usually suppressed by the code of culture.” (Pallasmaa, J. 1994).
But then, how is VR different from watching a movie? Movies also provide visual and sound content! Read on…
7. Virtual Reality Goggles are the most popular VR gadget today
Virtual reality goggles (also called Head Mounted Displays (HMD) or VR Headsets) are the most prevalent Virtual Reality gadgets available today that provide excellent immersion in the virtual scene.
The goggles come with a built-in screen that cover your eyes completely and headphones that ensure you hear only the computer generated audio. The goggles are strapped around your head with an elastic band. Because the VR goggle surrounds your vision with “360° displays”, you soon start believing that you are part of the virtual world!
Once you put on the VR goggles, you can look around the virtual world in all directions just like you would do in the physical world. The availability of 360° displays is a key difference between VR technologies and a cinema hall screen. The big dome and iMax screens try to replicate the same effect by using massive screens! However, they can only cover a maximum of 120° to 270° vision. Further, this comes at huge cost and all users get to see the same view of the virtual world, severely limiting the use of these to specific applications only.
Many experts believe that the future of virtual reality will be moving away from headsets to new types of technologies, such as holographic displays or blending the real with the virtual, which is more augmented reality. There is currently research being done directly projecting images onto your retina or using contact lens that do the same!
All VR goggles include some form of headphones to ensure that you hear the sounds generated in the virtual scene and not get distracted by the sounds coming from the physical world around you.
8. Two types of VR Goggles - Standalone and Externally Driven
There are primarily two kinds of VR goggles available today.
- Standalone goggles are created using gadgets, that are capable of generating images and provide a built-in display. This includes mobile phones or embedded computers. Google Daydream, Samsung GearVR and host of other mobile based products are driven by smartphones while Microsoft Hololens includes a mini embedded computer.
The choice of goggle to use is dependent on the type of application you are interested in (more on that below).
9. Sense of Space and User Interactions are key to enhanced immersion
In addition to the key five senses, there is another sense that deals with how your brain understands where your body is in space. This sense is called proprioception (I will just refer to it as the Sense of space for simplicity!). Sense of space includes the sense of movement and position of our limbs and muscles. The sense of space establishes a sense of presence and makes the VR feel similar to the physical world. Interaction with virtual objects is key to making a VR experience real. In the physical world, we touch things, press buttons, turn steerings and the corresponding objects respond to our actions. Replicating this feedback in VR is key to making the whole experience immersive and close to the physical world we have grown up with!
VR technologies differ in their capability to provide interactions and helping you move around in the virtual world. Suitability of the technology is dependent from case-to-case and vary in terms of accuracy, flexibility to move around in the VR space and cost of the technology.
10. Gadgets for interacting with the Virtual World
In the real world, our head, hand, legs and torso movements account for most of our real world interactions. Each interaction or movement requires some kind of input device that tells the software about the user action. Most modern VR goggles have sensors built in for head movements. For hand movements, you typically need to buy additional devices and trackers. More advanced applications like training simulators might required additional equipment. The following pictures show devices like gloves, wands and other gadgets.
11. Collaborative VR adds another dimension of reality to VR!
In the real world, we not just interact with objects. We also interact with other human beings. We work together in teams, we have meetings and we socialize! Modern VR allows multiple people to come together in a joint collaborative experience. This takes the whole VR experience to a very different level and opens up a very large number of applications and possibilities.
Just like teamwork and collaboration allow faster decision making, improved efficiencies and improved quality of life for employees, collaborative VR allows working with teams who might be geographically distributed, make sales presentations to clients without physically meeting them, or simply train together to assemble machines on an assembly line!
12. Good VR software brings it all together!
To make the VR interaction real world, it is necessary that user movements measured by the input device have a corresponding effect on the virtual world. How well the VR software handles these interactions can make or break the whole VR experience! It is critical that you identify the key interactions that your application needs, ensure that you have the right devices and that your software handles these inputs properly.
The visual fidelity of the virtual world, the sound quality and the interactions, all require the VR software to bring it all together. If your application only requires a 360° video, there are many free viewer apps that might serve your requirements well enough. However, if your application requires more sophisticated controls and high fidelity 3D content, you might need custom software developed.
13. Good VR experiences need to balance all components
Although each component has a role to play, in order to make the VR experience truly real, all the components need to be balanced! Over the last 20 years, as I have seen various VR solutions and technologies evolve, I have seen many people make the mistake of not creating a balanced solution. Virtual reality is a complete experience. created by multiple components combined – not just hardware, not just software, not just content. Leave one out, and the experience is destroyed. Buying the best VR gadgetry to drive poorly designed content will not result in a good user experience. Likewise, spending thousands of dollars on the content but not using the right user interactions or quality trackers can destroy the user experience and the effectiveness/value derived.
Balancing the various VR components – gadgets, content and software and integrating them properly are key to success in this exciting field.