We are living in the age of sci-fi. That is, the line that marks the transition towards the sort of science we’ve only seen in fiction is getting fainter. Fifty years ago the idea of flying cars or exosuits were fiction before the advent of the first commercial flying car the Aeromobile and the XOS 2 “Iron Man” power suit in 2015. 2015 also marked the advent of the Oculus Rift, the very first commercial virtual reality headset. While many took this as a passing fad, others began to realize the potential for VR outside of video games. VR headsets can single-handedly revolutionize how we teach and interact with the environment.
Some of the first people to take advantage of VR were indie game developers. Using 360 degree cameras and 3D mapping, they took advantage of the space available to create “experiences” more than actual games: situations such as flying or being on a rollercoaster, to more horror based atmospheres like the feeling you’re not alone or you’re being stalked by monsters.
However with only “experience” games available, many saw this as little more than a party trick. They brought up the golden age of the Wii in 2006. A lot of people thought motion controllers were going to revolutionize the gaming world. Sony even tried marketing its own motion controller called the Playstation Move after the Wii’s success. However there was only so much that could be done with motion control. With its limited uses (and its overly sensitive controls) the Wii and other motion controllers faded into the bargain bin.
Regardless, what probably saved VR was the integration of Oculus support with controllers and the indie developers who experimented with them. Controllers were a gateway that allowed players to move in the environment, giving them a much wider range of options when it came to VR development. Now with full motion, or at least hand motion, VR had elevated to another level.
With the availability of the new HTC Vive VR system, integrating both intuitive controls and high quality sound, it has created a renaissance in VR. One of the best games showcasing the potential of VR was made by the gaming company Valve called The Lab.
As a part of the Portal Universe, The Lab is set in, what else, a lab within the fictional company Aperture Science and showcases the various practical and entertaining uses of VR. While sure you have a couple of mini games including an arrow game, shooting gallery, and a catapult mini game, The Lab also showcases a number of other “experiments”.
In one showcase, you have an entire real-time working map of our solar system. You can literally pick up and examine different planets while they’re spinning in a fully rendered outer space. Can you imagine the practical application of a VR 3D solar system in a classroom? You could teach kids how being closer to a sun can affect its atmosphere or simulate an asteroid hitting the Earth.
In another showcase you have a rendered 3D map of a human. With a single slice, you can visually examine a cutaway of any part of the body and see how each part of the body works. Think of the applications for the medical field. You can have a full rendering of a tumor inside a heart or brain and simulate how to remove it before even operating.
In probably one of the most useful applications of VR, Valve has rendered real environments in full 360 degree viewing so you could actually be in real places. Now imagine attending a seminar, in a classroom, in Japan, thousands of miles away from where you’re sitting right now.
While much of this technology is still in the trial phase, just imagine with a little more time how VR can alter the way we see things. It can make distances shorter, entertainment more personal, and learning more impactful. Just imagine what could be next in a few years: wireless VR headsets, roll cages that allow you to walk further in VR, actual sensors that give weight to what you pick up? Don’t dismiss VR as a gimmick. It invites a whole new world of possibilities that can make the distance between science, interaction with others, and entertainment nonexistent.