Think you know what virtual reality is? Either a geekish massive set of goggles or something outlandish like a remake of the movie Tron? It’s time for those with a computer science degree to reconsider what exactly virtual can mean. This is a set of technologies that will radically change how people interact with technology, information, and each other.
After decades of largely stereotyped expressions, virtual reality has recently begun to come into its own. For example, Oculus, which was purchased by Facebook, recently announced a new prototype — built-in headphones, virtual surround sound, 360 degree head tracking, and a jump in performance. But more importantly, Oculus has reportedly found the way to eliminate the lurching motion sickness that keeps many people from using visual VR technology.
That’s just on the visual front. Another company, Tesla Studios (no relation to the car company), is working on a full-body virtual reality suit. Not only would computers be able to more fully mimic the motions of arms and legs, but they could transmit sensations in return.
The suit will use a mesh of sensors that employ technology from the medical rehabilitation industry. Small electrical impulses will translate into physical sensations. “Professional sports coaches use it,” [CEO Dimitree Marozau] said. “We just made the technology smart. You could do massage. Scratch your back on the screen of your phone [and feel the results in the suit].”
Those sensations could be subtle, like choosing to feel a cool ocean breeze. Tesla Studios thinks that the technology could be used for movies or gaming. But that is an easy first take on where virtual reality could be employed. But it isn’t difficult to see other ways in which a VR suit could be used. In training and feedback for any physical activity, simulations and remote control for law enforcement and the military, and remote surgery and telemedicine, to mention a few possibilities.
Now consider that virtual reality will expand even more. For example, researchers have worked on ways to digitize smells and it is only a matter of time before they learn how to achieve success.
Virtual reality will continue to expand and mature, and computer scientists will help make it possible. However, they face significant challenges, although not because controlling VR technology will be so overwhelmingly hard. The difficulty will be to break though old conventions and assumptions and consider new ways to convey information and to use the new capabilities to advantage, not just to turn them into playthings.