VIRTUAL REALITY (VR) is a buzzword repeatedly thrown around in the tech industry as the 'next big thing'. But ask the average Joe what good it's doing in the world and they'll probably look a bit perplexed.
The technology's popularity has been secured by its novel way of creating interactive worlds using advanced coding, something that is new to most people's experience and sounds pretty cool as well. But it's strange, and a shame, that besides being a lot of fun - for instance, enhancing video gaming experiences - there appear to be very few useful potential applications at the moment. That's also surprising considering the number of major players having a go at VR, some of which are making some rather significant breakthroughs.
However, the perception of VR as nothing more than a gimmick from the gaming industry is gradually starting to shift as the concept's power is slowly realised by other industries. There doesn't seem to be much use for VR in business and productivity at the moment, but it is starting to take shape in education.
The British Museum in London, for instance, launched a VR learning initiative this month in partnership with Samsung. Injecting VR into an exhibition area called the Digital Discovery Centre allowed the museum to change the way people see the technology and how it could be used to engage people of all ages in ways not possible before by helping them understand a possibly dry or convoluted subject.
Bringing VR to the British Museum's state-of-the-art technological hub - a place created in 2009 to help children and young people learn about, and interact with, the museum's collection - allowed visitors to explore a virtual reality Bronze Age settlement using Samsung's Gear VR headsets. The system comprises a headset with a mounted Galaxy S6 smartphone that acts as the display, allowing users to explore an environment that consisted of a hut in a forest and uncover 3D scans of objects from the museum's collection from that period placed in their original setting.
The main thrust of the initiative was that participants were able to explore multiple interpretations of how the objects might have been used in the past, alongside varied lighting and atmosphere, exploring a growing research area that suggests a ritual of houses being aligned with the sun.
However, this VR project was open to the public for one weekend only, most likely so that the museum and Samsung could see how well the technology was perceived in a public environment.
We popped along to try it out. The idea was a brilliant way to encourage people to find out more about the museum's collection, and discover a new way of learning, but we couldn't help feeling that the technology itself wasn't quite responsive and fluid enough to offer a truly immersive experience.
It is difficult to feel fully engaged with the software's intention, i.e. to educate, because the lag when moving your head around to explore the virtual environment can be quite nauseating and distracting.
Nevertheless, this is definitely one of the best applications you will see of VR designed to produce something more meaningful than a fun experience, and it has the power to create new teaching spaces in the future, such as highly accessible learning environments.
Education in healthcare
However, education doesn't always equate to the teaching of children. Another industry that could see VR making an impact is health and the training of surgeons.
For example, a University of Huddersfield researcher launched a project in July to harness technology to provide accurate visualisations of human anatomy and surgical procedures via VR headsets.
Yeshwanth Pulijala, a qualified dental surgeon, decided to work on a way to provide training in corrective jaw surgery. Using the Oculus Rift VR headset, Pulijala developed a tool that helps surgeons to participate virtually in an operation as part of his PhD project.
Pulijala aims to provide trainee surgeons with close-up, unrestricted, 360-degree views of a surgical procedure that have the potential to be a major improvement on operating room sessions in surgical training.
"If you are a trainee surgeon, wearing an Oculus Rift, you will see the surgical procedure in an operating room environment and also able to ‘touch' the skull of the patient and interact with it," said Pulijala.
Replacing the smartphone
Surprisingly, the concept of VR is particularly popular among smartphone brands, and Sony and HTC have also developed their own headsets for supposedly different reasons.
HTC unveiled Vive earlier this year, a device that claimed to be the only product capable of creating a "truly immersive" VR experience. The headset is powered by Valve's Steam VR platform and is aimed at revolutionising the gaming industry by creating "fully rendered 3D VR environments" where users can interact with objects.
HTC's Vive is not yet on sale commercially and is still in the initial rollout phase, requiring any developers wanting to have a pop at writing code for it to enter a selection process for distribution, which began only this summer.
Sony, another smartphone maker, has also dipped its toe in the world of VR, via Project Morpheus, a headset like HTC's Vive that looks to enhance gaming experiences, but specifically as an accessory for the PlayStation 4.
Project Morpheus offers a 5in LCD panel with a 1920x1080 resolution that yields 960x1080 pixels per eye with a 90-degree field of view. There's also a built-in accelerometer and gyroscope hooked up to the console via HDMI and USB, which suggests that it will not be wireless.
But why are smartphone manufacturers the main companies pushing VR technology? Are firms that traditionally make smartphones interested in this new area of technology because the smartphone is dying? Does this trend signal the future of smartphones and how we might interact with our digital worlds in the future?
That could be something to think about, but the problem we have right now is that VR is not being used as much as it could be. This might be because, while it can prove fascinating, fun and, as we've found, quite nauseating, none of the current technology companies giving it a go has cracked how to apply it successfully as anything more than a gimmick. µ
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