What is real? How do you define real? If you're talking about what you can hear, what you can smell, taste and feel, then real is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain. ~ Laurence Fishburne (as Morpheus from the movie The Matrix)
So, what is all this hype and hoopla over the likes of virtual and augmented reality technology all about? Is it really possible to experience a Matrix-like phenomenon in the real world? To continue with the Matrix theme, is the world, as we know it, the REAL world? Well, that was a rhetoric question meant to tease the technologically curious nerve inside you! Or was it? Okay, enough playing! It's time to get down to the brass tacks now! So what is this technology all about? Let's get us some answers!
A Layman's Take on Virtual Reality
A computer simulated environment that either resembles or substitutes the physical reality so well that the viewer is left wondering whether what he sees or feels is the real thing or if it's all in his mind is known as virtual reality. The concept of virtual reality technology includes all such computer and IT based technologies that can perfectly simulate and project any place or situation of either the real or imaginary plane to the eyes or any other sensory organ. However, presently, the major chunk of virtual reality experiences fall under the category of visual virtual reality with auditory effects coming from additional appendages like speakers, headphones, etc.
Research and product development is being carried out for new varieties of virtual reality techniques and technology which would be capable of extending stimuli to other sensory organs like touch, taste, smell, etc. The most common and commercial examples of virtual reality technology can be seen in the forms of virtual reality games (such as Dactyl Nightmare, Hero, Legend Quest, Grid Busters, Mage, etc.) and virtual reality glasses, gloves and other gear used for playing such games. You can check out the movie How to Make a Monster by Stan Winston to get an idea about how physical reality and virtual reality can, at times, get confusingly inter-tangled!
How Virtual Reality Works
In order to grasp the mechanics of virtual reality, we first need to understand what virtual reality space is. A virtual reality space is created using sensory output generated by a computer that is 3D enabled. Such a virtual space enables the users to carry on interactions with the virtual environment while still being in the physical environment. To create an experience of virtual reality, the effect of telepresence must be present. The term telepresence refers to the feeling of the user that he/she is present at a location different from his true, physical location. This different location, other than the actual physical location, is what we call the virtual reality environment. The essence of complete telepresence is very important as without telepresence, the virtual reality experience would be flawed and incomplete.
There are two technological aspects which sum up the concept of telepresence - immersion and interaction. Immersion is the phenomenon by which the user gets the feeling of being one with the virtual environment. He/ she feels as if he exists in the virtual world and is sensorily immersed in his/her virtual surroundings. Immersion consists of the virtual eyes and ears of the user and employs the mechanics of sight and sound. Interaction is the phenomenon by which the user is able to interact with the virtual world as well as with other users in it. This aspect consists of the communication parameters and the modus operandi of interaction may be via speech or text.
Virtual Reality Tools
The tools and technology used to create virtual reality environments include (but may not be limited to) virtual graphics library, programming languages that are commonly used for games, scripting and web applications (such as Java, C++, Perl, Python, etc.), multi threading technology (for better cluster computing and enhanced multi-user interactions), etc. Telepresence can be induced by using standard computer interaction devices such as the mouse, keyboard, etc. or by employing multi modal interaction devices including wired gloves, motion trackers, digitizers, 3D scanners, eye-trackers, ODT, etc.
The technology of virtual reality employs all these and many more tools and techniques to impart a virtual environment and interaction that very closely resembles and is as good as physical environment and interactions! Nowadays, besides games and 3D movies, we can see virtual reality technology around us in the form of virtual babies, virtual pets, virtual partners/spouses (yes, even that! Check out the site V-girl; it features virtual girlfriends!), virtual makeover, etc. We can only keep our fingers crossed over what other virtual wonders this neo-space-age technology has in store for this and future generations!