by Nikita Senthil (’23) | March 29, 2021
If you’re part of the majority of the teen population who plays video games, you are likely familiar with the games Half-Life: Alyx, Falcon Age, or Space Pirate Trainer. What do these popular games have in common? They’re all experienced in virtual reality! Virtual reality, or VR, has become a household name since its inception. Because many people directly interact with it at such a young age, most people today are familiar with the term, if not the technical details behind its functionality. Virtual reality describes technology that creates a simulated 3D environment, often with shockingly realistic detail, using visual, auditory, and occasionally tactile effects.
The most common form of virtual reality is experienced on VR headsets, which have been around since the 1990s but only gained popularity in the 2010s when Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, and Sony PlayStation VR led the new wave of next-generation headset development. However, interestingly enough, the concept of VR has been around for much longer. In 1935, Stanley Weinbaum wrote a short story about a pair of goggles that allows the user to watch a movie and experience not only sight and sound but also taste, smell, and touch. This kind of immersive experience was among the most imaginative of science fiction concepts not even a century ago, making it all the more remarkable that today, it is a popular, albeit expensive, product in mass markets.
A variation of VR is augmented reality, or AR. It differs from virtual reality, as it does not create a fully immersive experience but instead uses graphical overlays to view objects in the real world with additional sensory information. While AR enhances your perception of the real world, VR completely replaces it with a simulated world. One of the best examples of augmented reality is Pokémon GO!, a mobile app released in 2016 by Nintendo and The Pokémon Company. Most of us are old enough to remember the resulting mania worldwide: governments had to issue warnings and regulations in response to the countless car crashes and deaths spurred by the obsessive desire to catch all of the Pokémon. The original Pokémon fans were, of course, thrilled because the Pokémon were finally part of the “real world,” not just the fictional world of the games. The app itself received praise not only for its success as a video game but also as one of a few video games encouraging physical activity. Indeed, the most dedicated “Trainers” walked for hours each day to find Pokémon in the most obscure places.
You might be wondering how the developers of the app knew where and how to situate the Pokémon. And how does the app work for users all around the world in different surroundings? The answer is surprisingly straightforward: the app utilizes your GPS to create a map similar to Google Maps, replacing real-world street names and landmarks with Pokémon creations. Based on the type of location you visit, the app might overlay different kinds of creatures, such as grass-like Pokémon in a park. It also uses the clock in your mobile phone to determine the sort of creatures you see; for example, you might see more ghost-like Pokémon at night. To display the actual Pokémon, the app utilizes the phone’s camera and gyroscope, a sensor that detects the phone’s orientation, including rotation and other movements. Pokémon GO! is a great example of how software (the app) can interact with hardware (sensors) and our senses to create an immersive or partially immersive experience for users to enjoy.
While the origins and popular uses of VR and AR lie in gaming, their future potential may also expand to architecture, sports, military training, medicine, and the entertainment industry. A unique benefit of VR is that it allows people to acquire real-world experience while taking simulated risks, especially as graphics become more realistic. For instance, the Austin-Travis County EMS is currently training its first responders using virtual reality as a reaction to the restrictions on in-person gatherings. Dr. Scott Smith, the president of Augmented Training Systems, claimed that “the platform allows you to track training and accuracy of performance. It also introduces elements of gamification and repetition, both of which help with knowledge retention and skill recall.”
Organizations have also recently deployed VR in diversity and inclusion training, allowing users to experience situations from the perspective of a minority group. This application is potentially more effective than the traditional and often impersonal slideshow or online course. The unique possibilities VR creates are exciting to observe. In the coming years, it will be interesting to see if VR and AR remain rooted in the gaming industry or shift focus to a new niche.