The term virtual reality, coined by Antonin Artaud in 1938, now commonly refers to interactive, realistic simulations of environments generated by computer software and hardware. Although most virtual reality systems today are restricted to visual and audio representation, future advancements in neural mapping and nanotechnology may allow for fully-immersive virtual realms within the next thirty years.
Today’s Virtual Reality Systems
At the basic level, virtual reality systems today display parallel worlds or 3D simulations of real or hypothetical environments through the use of desktop monitors. Through first-person visualization or self-externalizing avatars, the viewer interacts with a computer generated model of an environment. This basic framework of virtual reality can be seen from the online virtual world of Second Life to the rudimentary 3D imaging of GPS navigation systems for automobiles.
Using monitors as a method of remote communication, videotelephony takes the basic qualities of desktop virtual reality and applies them to human communication. Although videoconferencing has been around for some time, videotelephony uses high-resolution imaging and increased bandwidth to give users an increased sense of reality and presence. Video Relay Services and Video Remote Interpreting use high frame-rates and high-speed connections to give the deaf and hearing impaired a chance to effectively communicate using sign language.
More immersive than desktop viewers, head mounted and stereoscopic displays such as the upcoming Oculus Rift will offer gamers a 3D rendered environment within its binocular display, effectively maximizing the viewer’s field of vision. In the last three years, the increased speed of computer processors has made it possible to render complex environments with low-latency and fast, interactive response time.
Tactile Haptic Technology
Using tactile feedback, haptic technology, or haptics, engages with the user’s sense of touch. This technology not only operates in a passive way, responding to external controls and data, but also actively engages with the user through vibrations and other physical forces. Using vibrational feedback and realistic gun modeling, the Falcon device from Novint gives gamers an augmented sense of reality in first-person shooter games. Sensable’s Phantom product line provides precision positioning input and high fidelity force-feedback output to give a sense of touch to architectural and medical simulations, as well as a wide array of other commercial applications.
Delving further into haptic technology, Cambridge Research & Development’s Neo device helps to give surgeons precision tactile information when performing high-risk operations with robots. A headband-mounted transducer mechanism, the Neo works in conjunction with passive virtual reality robots like Intuitive Surgical’s da Vinci system to send small amounts of vibration and pressure to the surgeon’s skin. This tactile information effectively takes away the numbness associated with most robotic controls, increasing the overall sensitivity and the response time of the operator.
The Future of Virtual Reality
Although the most immediate advancements in virtual reality will stem from faster, smaller computers using augmented virtual reality, such as interactive car windshields and Google Glass, long-term advancements may bring a complete paradigm-shift to the world of simulation.
Ray Kurzweil, inventor of the flatbed scanner and text-to-speech synthesis, has predicted we will see a billion-fold increase in computing performance in the next 25 years. As BBC news reported, he also said there will be a 100,000 fold shrink in the size of computers, leading eventually to “blood cell-size devices… that can go inside our bodies and keep us healthy and inside our brain and expand our intelligence.”
Using this technology, Kurzweil indicated these blood cell computers could “produce full immersion virtual reality from inside the nervous system.” The possibilities of this nanotechnology are seemingly endless. Interaction with blood-stream computers could essentially replace most external computing devices and also completely transform most virtual environments. As scientists have already made significant advancements in virtual neuroimaging , it’s only a matter of time before different pieces of the neurological and technological puzzle begin to fit together.