Not so long ago, virtual reality was one of those ideas that came up in discussions about the distant future. As a concept, virtual reality seemed so technologically advanced — almost sci-fi at its core — it seemed like a technology that would only be accessible to the most brilliant minds in business and tech. Despite attempts by pop culture media to show a world where everyone used this technology, virtual reality seemed to have no practical uses for everyday people.
Today, we know that couldn’t be further from the truth. Virtual reality (VR) plays an increasingly larger role in our daily lives. As the world continues to work toward ways of connecting and communicating across even farther distances, VR will become more accessible.
So what, exactly, do you need to know about this emerging technology? Keep reading to learn what virtual reality is, how people are using the technology today, and what we can expect from virtual reality in the future.
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What Is Virtual Reality?
VR aims to create a simulation that immerses the user in the newly created digital environment. The experience is considered virtual because it’s computer-generated, even if the simulation looks exactly like a real-world setting.
With that in mind, Techopedia notes that there are a couple of generally accepted guidelines for what constitutes a VR experience:
- “The environment must be made up of images that appear life-sized according to the perspective of the user/viewer unless the desired effect deviates from this.”
- “The system responsible for running the virtual environment must be able to track the user’s motions, especially the eye and head movements, so that it can react and change the images on the display or initiate any related events.”
Interacting within a VR environment requires some equipment. How much and what type depends on whether you’re taking part in an immersive, semi-immersive, or non-immersive VR experience.
In an immersive experience, VR users are essentially transported to the most realistic type of VR setting. To create the sense of actually living in the simulation, users need a VR headset, gloves and headphones at minimum, in addition to the software and system that are generating the setting.
Semi-immersive VR experiences are often used in training scenarios (think education, business, healthcare, military, etc.). These situations require a projector system to create a large, realistic setting, and often incorporate actual, physical objects into the simulation.
The non-immersive type of VR is most familiar in the form of video and computer games. This experience requires the least amount of equipment. With the right software, a screen and some type of controller, you’re all set.
How did virtual reality get to this point?
If it almost seems as though all of this VR technology came out of nowhere, that’s because it kind of has. Although the idea of virtual worlds has persisted for a long time (depending on your interpretation of VR, some people say ideas tangential to VR have been swirling around since the 1800s), accelerated innovations didn’t begin until 2012. That’s when early prototypes of the Oculus Rift headset appeared at the E3 trade show. The design was lacking, but the technology was there. Suddenly, widespread and accessible use of VR seemed like a real possibility.
What’s the Difference Between VR and AR?
Now that you understand VR, it’s important to know that not every computer-generated, there-but-not-really-there experience is classified as VR. The next closest thing to virtual reality is augmented reality, commonly referred to AR. (Both of these fall under the broader category of extended reality, or XR.) Where VR immerses users in digitally constructed settings, AR essentially overlays digital images onto the user’s actual, real-world setting. More simply, as PCMag states, “Whereas virtual reality replaces your vision, augmented reality adds to it.”
Remember the Pokémon Go craze? That game is actually an excellent example of AR. Using the Pokémon Go app on a smartphone, users look through the phone’s camera and see a Pokémon character on their screen, seemingly wandering around on the ground right in front of them. In this case, you’re not seeing the world of Pokemon all around you, just one or two little guys who somehow managed to enter your world.
AR doesn’t require the same kind of hardware as VR. Most of the time, all you need is a smartphone. Products like the Microsoft HoloLens offer AR and mixed reality (MR) features, and some smart glasses are also experimenting with offering better AR capabilities. Similar to what we’ve seen with VR, the more accessible AR becomes, the more innovations we’ll see outside of gaming and entertainment.
What is a VR headset? Do I need one?
A VR headset is the key component to experiencing fully immersive VR environments. Essentially, it’s the hardware you need to actually be in the simulated experience. They come with a wide range of features and capabilities, which naturally means that their price tags span a full spectrum, too.
Some of the most well-known VR headsets include the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and Sony PlayStation VR. One of the most rudimentary — so bare-bones that it could be mistaken for a prototype — is the Google Cardboard.
More Than a Game: VR in the Real World
Although VR is often associated with gaming, its practical applications reach far beyond entertainment. In fact, it’s a multi-billion dollar industry. The value of the total VR market is expected to grow from $6.3 billion in 2021 to over $84 billion in 2028. Just within business settings, VR is projected to reach $4.26 billion in 2023. That’s a long way from its $829 million value in 2018!
A wide range of industries have successfully integrated VR technology with their current workflows and business needs. Let’s review just a few examples of how VR is changing the way people work.
Remote learning in some form has been around for a long time, but the COVID-19 pandemic made remote classrooms the only way to safely continue educating students. With so many people learning through virtual platforms, it was only a matter of time before people found creative ways to recreate or improve the classroom experience.
VR offers an effective way for teachers to practice lesson plans and even record lectures for students to access later if they miss class. This tech is also used to train new teachers before they begin teaching full-time. Simulated classroom settings can help them practice classroom management and student engagement tactics before applying them in a real classroom.
And because everyone can use a break from reality every once in a while, VR presents tons of opportunities for students to go on virtual field trips (or even create their own using programs like Driftspace). Not only does this keep students engaged, but it also lets them learn in new ways while growing comfortable with new technology — an important skill for children and adults alike.
One school going all-in on the metaverse experience is Dallas Hybrid Prep. Through a combination of in-person and virtual learning, Dallas Hybrid Prep “is one of the first schools in the country to implement a metaverse platform” according to EdTech Magazine.
In a field where precision and expertise are absolutely critical, VR is being used to train physicians, medical students and other medical professionals on everything from advanced surgery to patient protocol.
Not every institution with a pre-med program has access to resources like cadavers, which are often considered one of the best ways for students to study human anatomy. VR gives students the chance to learn through simulation in ways they literally could not otherwise access.
Practicing doctors can continue to hone their skills in recreated clinical settings. Whether learning new surgical procedures, practicing hospital protocols, or “testing” new equipment in the form of digital surgical tools, healthcare professionals can use VR to rigorously practice their craft before patients are involved.
At Cedars-Sinai Hospital, their VR research includes simulations designed to help doctors empathize with patients and caregivers. For example, doctors may recognize the signs and symptoms of dementia, but they don’t know what it’s actually like to experience it. This condition can be recreated as a VR experience, giving medical practitioners a better understanding of what their patients live with daily.
There are many situations where it helps to have training beforehand. And while we’ve established how valuable VR tech is for healthcare and education training, it might be even more useful in high-risk scenarios. Flight and military training, for example, carry huge risks if done incorrectly. Having simulated situations as a buffer before in-person training begins allows ample time for repetition and troubleshooting.
Plus, VR can be a cost-effective training tool when dealing with personnel shortages. With a current lack of pilots and flight instructors, the aviation industry is turning to VR to supplement in-person pilot training. This includes the U.S. Air Force’s Pilot Training Next program, as well as VR training at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.
What Concerns Should I Have About VR?
As with any emerging tech, it’s easy to get excited about the possibilities before fully realizing all of the new legal implications VR presents.
It’s important to remember that even though VR is computer-generated, many recreated scenes are meant to look exactly as they would in real life. Aggressive or inappropriate behavior in a virtual environment designed to look like an office setting can be considered grounds for a harassment case.
What’s more, because VR software tracks movement and other physiological responses, some people are concerned that this type of behavior data and its collection could be used against people if the right permissions aren’t in place.
This doesn’t make the VR experience universally unsafe. As we’ve learned, VR has many valuable, educational and entertaining uses that users can safely and actively participate in. What this does mean, though, is that it’s important to keep safety concerns in mind as laws around this technology evolve, and to continue to learn more about the metaverse and VR experiences.
The Future of VR
Because VR is still considered an emerging technology, there will be a lot to learn as people continue to innovate and test the limits of the VR experience.
For example, Latus Health is currently developing components of a VR hospital. Forbes explains, “[It] comprises of a virtual reality hospital environment, accessed through a headset, where treatments will at first be focused around counseling and physiotherapy services.” Essentially, it’s telemedicine taken to the next level.
Retail is another area where VR could flourish with the right innovations. Creating a personalized experience is vital to customer satisfaction and retention. Imagine being able to shop a virtual showroom and see how the product works or fits without having to actually be anywhere other than your home!
As VR becomes more accessible to a wider audience, new demands will emerge. Browse our collection of VR courses to learn how to stay at the front of the VR frontier and be prepared to adapt to all of this technology’s possibilities.