The New Virtual Reality

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The New Virtual Reality

A little over 20 years ago, virtual reality was a hot "buzzword" in technology circles. Virtual reality (VR) uses computer technology to create a simulated, three-dimensional world that a user can manipulate and explore while feeling as if he is in that world.

But today, there is no more vivid example of a technology that failed to deliver on virtually all of its promises. Aside from better flight simulators, a few video game platforms, and a handful of technical training applications, VR has nearly disappeared from our consciousness.

But like every truly useful technology, VR has not died. It's simply faded into the background, waiting for hardware, software, and evolving human needs to resurrect it — and now, we're standing on the verge of that resurrection.

But before we examine the trends driving "the New VR," let's take a quick look at precisely what constitutes a true VR experience.1

It's generally agreed that a true VR experience should minimally include:

  1. A three-dimensional image that appears to be life-size from the perspective of the user.
  2. The ability to track the user's motions, particularly his head and eye movements, in order to correspondingly adjust the images displayed to the user to reflect his change in perspective.

A virtual reality environment is successful when the user experiences the feeling of being inside it and actually being a part of the computer-generated world; this is called immersion. A successful VR environment also enables the user to interact with his environment in meaningful ways. Technologists refer to this coupling of a "sense of immersion" with "interactivity" as "telepresence."

The extent to which the user feels present in the mediated environment, rather than in his or her immediate physical environment, determines the degree to which telepresence has been achieved.

In other words, an effective VR has delivered telepresence if it causes someone to become unaware of his "real" surroundings and to focus on his existence inside the "virtual" environment.2

Immersion, as defined here, requires a system that produces both a "depth of information" and a "breadth of information."

  • Depth of information refers to the amount and quality of data in the signals a user receives when interacting in a virtual environment. For the technologist, these parameters would translate a display's resolution, the complexity of the environment's graphics, and the sophistication of the system's audio output.
  • Breadth of information refers to the "number of sensory dimensions simultaneously presented...

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