Virtual Reality, a once futuristic notion, has become very much a reality of the present. Facebook has announced that their virtual reality headset, Oculus Rift, will be available to buy in the first quarter of 2016. The Oculus Rift is perhaps the most high-profile virtual reality device, followed closely by Microsoft’s HoloLens. Both will have implications, not only the world of gaming, but in a wide range of fields from education to robotics.
The Oculus Rift is an ergonomically designed virtual reality headset. It builds on the presence and immersion capabilities of previous prototypes by providing 360° head tracking, allowing the user to look seamlessly around a virtual world of their choice, just as one would in real life. The Rift supports standing and seated experiences, allowing the user to move around whilst wearing the headset. It works by presenting individual, parallel images for each eye, mimicking the process of the human eye in real life; simultaneously, the Rift stretches the virtual image beyond the user’s peripheral vision. The result is a virtual reality which is natural, comfortable and intuitive.
Differing somewhat, though equally exciting, is the HoloLens which is “the first fully untethered, see-through holographic computer”. The HoloLens projects holograms onto your physical surroundings allowing the holograms to be integrated into everyday life. The interactive 3D images can range from a projection of a personal calendar to 3D models of architectural blueprints, allowing digital content and creations to come to life. It is what we imagined Google Glass to be.
Both of these devices have the potential to be excellent educational tools. Imagine, for example, using the Oculus Rift to float through a virtual solar system, reading information about each of the planets as you pass them. This interactive experience would be far more engaging and effective than traditional educational methods. The Rift could also be used by trainee surgeons, who typically practice on cadavers and assist experienced surgeons in operations on living patients. The Rift would allow trainees to practice their skills without putting patients at risk. Similarly, trainee surgeons could use holograms projected by the HoloLens to see in detail how parts of the human body function in motion. The HoloLens would allow students to see organs like the heart in micro-detail, allowing them to understand physiology in new ways.
Indeed, there are numerous medical uses for the Rift and the HoloLens. The Oculus Rift has potential uses in therapy procedures, for example for amputees suffering from Phantom Limb Syndrome, which can be extremely painful. Phantom Limb occurs when the brain fails to register that a limb is missing. By seeing a virtual recreation of an absent limb, the brain is better able to adapt to the absence and sync accordingly. In addition, the Rift could be used to teach soldiers how to dispense medical aid in dangerous, battlefield situations. Similarly, the HoloLens could be used to provide visual diagrams and medical instructions for soldiers in the midst of battle.
The HoloLens has obvious applications for the fields of design, engineering and architecture. The ability to create 3D holographs out of drawings or blueprints, which can be scaled with a hand movement or commanded to follow you around a physical space, will revolutionise the design industries. With the use of a 3D printer a design could go from hologram to reality in a comparable instant. Furthermore, holograms can be placed on top of existing models allowing for the visualisation of real-time modifications. And architectural virtual projections can be scaled to fit their intended locations.
But for me, the most exciting prospect is the use of the Oculus Rift in the field of robotics. DORA (or the Dexterous Observational Roving Automaton) is a wireless, remotely controlled robotic platform that employs virtual reality to allow the user to be safely transported to another physical space. DORA uses Rift technology to track subtle head movements, allowing the operator to control where the robot looks and experience real-time visual and audio feedback. This highly advanced robotic platform could be used in disaster relief situations, or warzones for reconnaissance.
It is amazing to consider that these virtual reality headsets will soon be available to consumers, eventually being regarded as an everyday “technology gadgets” like the Apple Watch or smartphones. But, imagine how the technology of DORA could impact space exploration, for example: VR technology will not only change the way in which we view our surroundings but it will enable us to learn new things about our world, perhaps even our universe.