Virtual Reality: Technology’s Next Frontier?
Virtual reality has long been a topic of interest for many decades now with those involved with technology, only to plant more steadily recently as improvements in technology have allowed for greater support of this still rather new field. On the surface, the prospect of instant, complete immersion into a new environment from anywhere in the world, whether that be in gaming, education, or medicine, has clear applications and benefits to potentially, billions of people. This wave of excitement hit a tangible breakthrough when Facebook, a platform with almost two billion active users, bought Oculus VR for an astonishing two billion dollars in 2014, and has continued with the release of virtual reality headsets in recent years, such as the Sony PlayStation VR, HTC Vive, and the Oculus Rift.
The most visible application of virtual reality at the moment is within the realms of gaming. Established corporations in the field such as Microsoft and Sony have all begun integrating virtual reality into new and existing games, such as Minecraft. Currently, many first-person games have dabbled with using virtual reality to literally put the player into the game, making every decision and movement more realistic, powerful, and significant. Although early developments are promising, like any new technology, more time needs to pass before we can truly assess the success of virtual reality technologies with gamers. After all, it was not long ago that some believed that motion technologies, as seen with the Nintendo Wii and the Xbox Kinect, would be the future of gaming, only for those developments to eventually lose ground with gamers across the world. At the moment, virtual reality games still barely make a dent in the video-gaming market, and gamers have also complained that virtual reality headsets have led them to feel motion-sickness, indicating that there are still many issues to be addressed.
Yet, the reason why Facebook believes Oculus VR justifies its two billion dollar valuation is because, like many others, they believe that virtual reality can impact many other areas of society. In education, developers have already started using virtual reality technologies to teach history, science, and different languages. For instance, supporters of virtual reality believe that eventually, instead of reading about the history of a place, virtual reality can transport the student to that place and time. Instead of simply teaching a language in a classroom, virtual reality can put the student into the place where the language is used, and interact with native speakers of that language. It is clear that, if virtual reality can develop to this level of realistic immersion, students can more effectively learn a subject, and in a more comprehensive manner than ever envisioned.
In a completely different setting, in the medical field, some doctors have already embraced using virtual reality technology to teach surgical procedures to medical student trainees, along with making the medical field as a whole more accessible to others. Just last year, Dr. Shafi Ahmed, a surgeon in the United Kingdom, donned a virtual reality headset and live-streamed a surgery for three hours, demonstrating the feasibility of this kind of application. There is a hope that virtual reality can be used in the future to more efficiently teach medical students and save some of the expensive costs associated with on-site training. Virtual reality can also be used to allow users to fully experience new surroundings. This can be in the sense of travelling to a new place, but also in the sense of optimizing the level of quality and pleasure we can get from watching a movie or a sports match. Although it cannot be said with absolute certainty that virtual reality will develop to match these aspirations that Facebook and others have for this relatively new technology, if Facebook and other enthusiasts are right, virtual reality will undoubtedly play a large role in many aspects of society in the future.
The development of virtual reality is not without its obstacles and controversies. Google Glass, formerly a big player in the augmented reality field, is discontinued at the moment, with some of the issues being that in public settings, people felt uncomfortable around those that used Google Glass, while others believed Google Glass violated their personal privacy. This is because Google Glass overlays data onto the user’s present environment, allowing the user to potentially take videos and pictures without others around them knowing. Another glaring issue with virtual reality technologies is the cost. At its peak, Google Glass cost around $1,500, with some auctions having the product priced at $15,000. The Microsoft HoloLens, a mixed reality headset which allows users to place virtual objects into the present setting before them, is comparably expensive at $3,000. Many virtual reality headsets, such as the aforementioned Oculus rift, cost at least a few hundred dollars before factoring in other important add-ons such as motion controllers.
These kinds of prices place virtual reality in a very exclusive market, inaccessible to many of the exact people that developers hope it can impact. Although virtual reality still holds much promise, those involved with the technology’s progress must address the privacy concerns many have with virtual reality in a real world setting, while also improving upon the affordability of virtual reality technology products. If more people can see what virtual reality has to offer to their lives, the strangeness and novelty of these products can shift to genuine excitement and integration of them in the households of billions around the world.
Virtual Reality: Technology’s Next Frontier?