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Virtually A Reality

Since its conception, people have always been interested in virtual reality tech; it gives us the opportunity to experience different realities (and is less dangerous than hallucinogenics).  Yet for years it’s either seemed more like a distant dream, or joke technology from futuristic ‘80s films. Since the rise of the Rift though it’s becoming a reality, with massive potential in areas other than gaming (and to be fair, in gaming too); and in the next year it could surprise us all with its wide-ranging uses. So, as the year draws to a close, let’s take a look at an area of tech that looks set to make it big in 2015!

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Virtual reality (also known as immersive media) describes tech that dunks (or ‘immerses’) you into a virtual world, using computer simulation to recreate sense-experiences that make you feel like you’re in these (real or imagined) worlds. This is most obviously done through sight (with the Rift sporting a fairly chunky headset), but whilst you’re in the world you can also stimulate the other senses to enhance the virtualised environment; for example, if there are flowers in the virtual world, the smell of roses might be released, or if you were in an earthquake in the virtual world your chair (or room or whatever) might shake.

The frontrunner in VR at the moment is arguably the Oculus Rift, which Facebook snapped up earlier this year for $2bn, and has jump-started a VR revival. Not everyone’s a fan of the large-scale (sometimes controversial) social media co. taking over the new kid on the block, but FB says it’s showing its support for the next gen of tech: “[W]ith Oculus we’re making a long-term bet on the future of computing,” said Zuckerberg. “Every 10-15 years a new major computing platform arrives, and we think virtual and augmented reality are important parts of this upcoming next platform.”

With Facebook’s resources, Oculus may be able to take VR mainstream, but there are some other big players getting involved too – like Sony’s Project Morpheus – so that even if the Rift doesn’t take off, there will undoubtedly be new versions waiting in the wings.

The main focus for virtual reality, up ‘til now at least, has really been gaming. Case in point – the new version of the endless runner series of Temple Run games is now available on the Samsung Gear VR Innovator Edition, which uses the Oculus VR headset with the screen of the Samsung Galaxy Note 4 smartphone (you pop the smartphone into the headset and then wear that). Samsung says it’ll continue to focus on mobile games, as it’s where it feels the biggest opportunity is; but it’s not just gaming – the VR of the future could be in education, healthcare or even space exploration.

For example, NASA are talking about using it to keep astronauts sane on missions, and it’s been used – with some success – to treat post-war PTSD patients, letting them immerse themselves in modified versions of war games and work through their psychological trauma. It’s also been used to let people ‘bodyswap’ and see what life would be like if they were someone else (maybe a different gender or race); which has increased empathy and could even help reduce racism. It’s particularly great for healthcare and phobias (although I think holding a virtual spider would be nearly as bad as holding a real one!) and could even help in social situations, like letting nervous public speakers practice in front of a ‘crowd’.

There are some things that still need ironing out before it’ll become mainstream though (aside from the obvious price restrictions). Motion sickness has been a problem, and there’s potential for people to mess with you whilst you’re actually immersed, as it is, in some ways, quite a vulnerable experience. Some are also saying it’s another antisocial technology, but Oculus says it can actually help personal development and let you break free of ‘the cards you’ve been dealt’ and become more empathetic.

There’s definitely a bigger picture in terms of the potential that it holds for the future, and we’ve almost certainly not seen the best of VR yet, both in terms of the tech itself (for example, the next phase might involve connecting VR headsets to other body sensors, so users can see and control their own hands while experiencing a virtual reality setting), and in terms of its social possibilities. Tell us what you think – what other uses might we have for virtual reality in the future?

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