Virtual Reality 101

Viren Bajaj
January 22, 2021

This article gives a brief overview of Virtual Reality to give the uninitiated reader a taste of what the technology is about. 

What is virtual reality?

Virtual reality is an alternative world created in software and experienced in three dimensions through stereoscopic head-mounted displays. The term “virtual” is used in the sense that the alternate reality is software generated, or simulated. In contrast to a passive experience of watching 3-dimensional movies, a key feature of virtual reality is the ability of the user to explore and interact with the virtual world from their perspective. The user can look in different directions of the virtual world through the head mounted display by rotating their head. Head mounted displays, or headsets in short, are paired with hand held controllers to interact with objects in the virtual world. Sometimes users are also provided with omni-directional treadmills so the user can locomote realistically in the virtual world. 

To better understand VR, its applications, and scope, we’re going to identify and address top three misconceptions about this fast-growing technology.

Myth: VR requires a complicated set up 

The technology space of VR has been rapidly evolving in the past few years, making VR more accessible to consumers’ homes. Creating a VR set up as simple or as complicated as you want has, therefore, become a huge attraction.

With the release of the Oculus Quest, and now Oculus Quest 2, the basic requirements needed to have an engaging experience are simply the headset! Notwithstanding Google Cardboard, a cardboard case that creates immersive experiences with android devices, the Quest 2 is all-in-one VR system untethers the VR headset from any external computer making it the most user-friendly, although at the cost of resolution of the graphics. The next simplest VR systems are those that can be powered by personal computers such as the Oculus Rift, HP Reverb, or Valve Index. Other VR systems connect to gaming consoles such as PSVR for the Sony PlayStation. 

However, if you wish to enhance your immersive VR experience, you choose from a whole list of additional sensors and controllers for your use case such as the PSVR’s aim rifle controller, 3D rudder foot controllers, VR trackers that track any object within their field of view, etc. 

Overall, VR has matured into a technology that can cater to both casual and professional users - permitting users to decide the kind of set up and investment they want to make.

Myth: VR is used exclusively for gaming

When someone mentions VR most people assume they mean in the context of games, and they wouldn’t be incorrect. With ever improving graphics on VR gaming consoles, gameplay in VR is slowly becoming an enjoyable gaming option for many users as opposed to a fascinating one-time experience. 

VR is being increasingly adopted across a wider range of applications from workplace training to psychotherapy. Most notably, VR is being used for workplace training by simulating working environments. When training new workers in the actual working environment can be risky or costly such as medical surgery, handling hazardous materials, or piloting aircrafts, VR can serve as a safe, inexpensive and reliable way to train new employees. This training method is especially useful in simulating adverse scenarios that occur rarely in reality. Another new application of VR is in psychotherapy to deal with trauma, anxiety, and addiction. Studies have shown VR’s effectiveness in this domain, which is why it’s making its way into many doctors’ arsenals. 

However, the overarching goal that the entire VR industry seems to be striving for is being able to create virtual environments where a large number of people can interact. The hope is to make VR powerful and accessible enough so that more real-life events can take place in VR. If executed well, this development can save a huge amount of time and resources spent in traveling to be present in those events, without settling for two-dimensional video conferencing. In the light of the pandemic, which forced most of us to stay home, it is easy to see its importance in working and studying from home. 

Myth: VR is infallible and without limitations

As with any developing technology, there will always be limitations and areas of improvement. Although it’s progressed by leaps and bounds in the last decade, VR is no different. 

Some of the current limitations of VR are:

  • It is bulky  - the hardware needed to create an immersive experience for individuals is unfortunately a large and heavy headset and corresponding controllers. The size and weight of these systems make them less portable. However, as edge computing becomes more powerful, the VR headsets will become smaller and more user-friendly. 
  • It is costly - Most consumer VR systems still cost more than $300. This price point clearly makes it an exclusive product for tech enthusiasts as it is unaffordable for the majority of the population of the world. However these devices are becoming cheaper as the underlying hardware and software becomes cheaper. 
  • It’s data and compute intensive - The processing power and data needed to render good graphics in VR is very high. This created the need for tethering the headset to external computers because a large amount of computing power cannot be placed in the head set and the large amount of graphical data needs a cable to be transferred quickly. Although all-in-one headsets such as the Oculus Quest 2 have made it to the market, most VR headsets rely on external compute and cable connections. Interestingly, VR will be one of the technologies that will really benefit from the roll out of 5G technology at scale because the increased data transfer rate will allow online collaborative VR applications.
  • Generating VR applications is difficult - VR systems serve as a platform for many software applications, but to create these applications requires creating 3D objects, called “assets”. These 3D artistic assets need to be designed by a team of specialized designers and then coded, which is very time intensive. Another reason is that there is a dearth of 3D prototyping and visualization tools, which slows down the application development cycle. However, this limitation might be ameliorated because there are some cutting edge artificially intelligent techniques under development that will automate generation of 3D assets.  

Given the high rate of development of this field, it is always in a state of flux. In this article we only scratched the surface of the current state of Virtual Reality and its applications.

Viren Bajaj
Emerging Technologies Coordinator
Columbia University Information Technology
[email protected]