Virtual reality can be defined as an upcoming technology that makes users feel in a Virtual Environment (VE) by using computer hardware and software. It was originally conceived as a digitally created space which humans could access by donning special computer equipments. It enables people to deal with information more easily. VR provides a different way to see and experience information, one that is dynamic and immediate. For example, in a computer game, user’s joystick motions are tracked and the objects in the game are moved according to the joystick movements. In the same way a simulated, three-dimensional world is created around the user in which he/she could interact with objects, people, and environments. Typically three-dimensional life-sized images with support of audio devices are presented around the user and the perspective is modified in accordance with the user input (generally head or eye movements). Many devices along with the computers are used to create a virtual environment.
To enter in a VE, a user dons special gloves, earphones, and goggles, all of which send their output to the computer systems. The virtual environments are intended to replace the real world environment with the digital one and the human senses are immersed in the VE. Immersion is an experience of losing oneself in the VE and shutting out all cues from the physical world. A Virtual Environment can be created on different extents depending on the computer based platform ranging from a cell phone screen to a desktop monitor or a fully Immersive Virtual Environment(IVE).
The tracking and rendering turns the whole process more immersive and interactive than the traditional media like televisions and video games. The user actions result in immediate and observable impact on the content of virtual environment. Following are the main components of a virtual environment:
1. The visual displays that immerse the user in the virtual world and block out contradictory sensory impressions from the real world.
2. The graphics rendering system that generates the ever changing images at 20 to 30 frames per second.
3. A tracking system that continuously informs the position and orientation of the user’s movements.
4. The database construction and maintenance system to build and maintain a detailed and realistic model of the virtual world.
5. A sound system that can produce high quality directional sounds and simulated sound fields.
6. Devices like tracked gloves with push buttons to enable users to specify their interactions with the virtual objects.
As Virtual Reality has gained traction in the real world, scientist and researchers have started to think about their use in various fields like medical science, gaming and education.
Medical Science - One of the most common uses of the virtual reality is in Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy (VRET) which treats the patients suffering from some specific anxiety or phobias. Patients are gradually introduced to the negative situations in a virtual environment until they become desensitized and are able to handle with their fear or anxiety. The diseases like acrophobia (the fear of heights), Agoraphobia (fear of spaces), Arachnophobia (social phobia) are treated using the VERT therapy. Virtual Environments (VEs) are also used to study the patient’s reactions and behaviors to high anxiety environments. Medical students, doctors and nurses are taught the basics of human anatomy as well as surgical procedures by creating 3D virtual models.
Education - Virtual Reality is used to train people working in widely diverse settings or professions, from fighter pilots to librarians. The simulation of environments using sensory immersion has been proven an effective training method. Training in monitoring and verification of performance is as simple as simulating the normal and abnormal conditions within the workplace environment. Simulations can be distributed to centers to be used by the trainers or trainees, and new environments and conditions can be added easily. The use of virtual reality is also increasing in military, especially to train pilots by developing special flight simulators which provide pilots a safer and less expensive way to learn flying skills. Also Virtual simulations of conflict scenarios have been used to teach soldiers how to make quick and effective decisions under stressful circumstances.
An example of a simulation tool is ‘MaxwellWorld’, which is designed to help students understand the concepts of electrostatic fields. Generally students have trouble understanding the relationship of abstractions about electric fields to phenomenological dynamics. The MaxwellWorld enable learners to virtually experience scientifically accurate models of electric fields and make factors significant that are not noticeable in the real world like how forces at each point in space continually accelerate a test charge through 3D interactive imageries.
Gaming – Gaming is another industry where virtual reality technology is deployed and resultantly we have more interactive and entertaining games with us. These 3D games use a high definition helmet mounted with LCD or LED screen and 3D stereo headset. The gamers are highly immersed with the gaming scenario and the characters and objects interact with the gamer like live things. Some companies like Sony are now involved in developing games augmented with the VR technology.
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