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Virtual Reality Software Information

The ability to be fully immersed and transported to another place via virtual reality opens up pathways to interact, communicate, and design. As the subject of many fictional stories, people have been fascinated by virtual reality with characters entering or becoming trapped in virtual worlds.

Figure 1. Virtual reality exhibition. Source: stephan Sorkin/Unsplash

Virtual reality (VR) is a simulated experience with 3D near-eye displays that give users a sense of immersion generated by software. VR software has applications in various industries but has gained significant attention in the entertainment industry. Until recently, the average consumer was unable to have access to virtual reality due to cost barriers, but with advancements in many of the supporting hardware components and software, people can now readily access VR applications and equipment. Enterprise applications for VR software are not few and more applications are being discovered that can be further adapted to industrial needs.

History

One of the earliest known adaptations of VR was the Sensorama introduced in 1962 by Morton Heilig. This mechanical device consisted of a stereoscopic color display and a stereo-sound system. As well, fans and odor emitters were included to create a more immersive experience. However, this device was not interactive and the user would only experience a film that would produce effects at specified time intervals.

Later, in 1968 Ivan Sutherland, a computer scientist, created what is widely believed to be the first head-mounted display system for VR. The mechanical tracking system was called The Sword of Damocles. In the decades to follow, VR software would be further developed into more complex and compact devices that offered more realistic graphics and tracking.

Components

VR is comprised of a collection of technologies such as 3D displays, motion-tracking software, software frameworks, development tools, as well as input devices. There are varying degrees of portability associated with VR headsets and different levels of immersive experience. 

Software that comes together to create and display VR is rapidly evolving. Native VR development for entertainment can use popular game engines such as Unity3D and

Unreal. While the web is not lagging behind with JavaScript frameworks and WebGL.

Theory

A VR system exposes users to surrogate tacto-audio-visual experiences. The computer system is attached to a peripheral device that allows users to interact with both real and artificial objects that are within the interaction environment. 

There are many ways to generate 3D graphics in software applications but one common method is to use a mesh. A mesh is an object that is created by vertices defined by coordinate positions in 3D space. Often, a mesh is comprised of one or more polygonal shapes, often triangles (three vertices) and quads (four vertices). The surface of the mesh is defined with additional attributes past the coordinate system such as material characteristics and more complicated textures.

Beyond 3D computer-generated graphics, omnidirectional cameras allow for the recording of 360° videos and images that can be imported into VR software. While graphics are integral to the sense of immersion, user experience (UX) design can be crucial to developing VR applications. Easy-to-use tools allow for adaptability and greater commercial viability.

Figure 2. Polygonal mesh of human head using quads. Source: Public domain

Hardware

VR software often corresponds to headset displays. These headsets utilize technologies such as gyroscopes and motion sensors to track head positions. Small screens are used for stereoscopic displays with small and lightweight processors. With advancements in these technologies, VR headsets are now widely available. 

Displays

The number of devices needed to communicate with each other seamlessly can create software development challenges. Stereoscopic displays (also referred to as 3D displays and head-mounted displays or HMDs) use a combination of multiple images optical distortion, and special lenses to help people’s eyes interpret the VR as three-dimensional. As a result, field of view (FOV) and angle of view (AOV) considerations need to be considered when generating VR. 

One of the largest impediments to the advancement of consumer-grade VR was lightweight and affordable displays that could be comfortably worn on the user’s head. To increase feelings of immersion and spatial impression, two images are displayed from different perspectives for each eye. A separate image for each eye needs to be generated with each image being slightly offset from the other to simulate sight of the physical world. The image also needs to be distorted to emulate the spherical shape of the eye using barrel distortion. 

On the software end, the application must render a stereoscopic image with appropriate distortion and filters at least 60 to 120 times per second to reduce any perceived lag and latency. Lower rates might break the VR illusion or lead to nausea.

Figure 3. Stereoscopic image sent to VR headset with barrel distortion and chromatic aberration correction filters. Source: Ats Kurvet/CC BY-SA 4.0

Motion tracking hardware 

Low-cost components such as gyroscopes and accelerometers are used to sense when bodies move and heads turn so that the software application can update the user’s view in the headset.

People’s perceptual systems are highly attuned to motion and misaligned head tracking can both break the VR immersion and cause nausea. Inertial measurement unit (IMU) hardware must track head movement quickly and the software must keep up. When both the display and head motion tracking are combined effectively, a true sense of immersion is generated. 

Input devices

The user's eyes must be completely enclosed when viewing VR to prevent users from seeing the outside world. This can make it difficult for some users to interact with controllers such as mice or keyboards during the VR experience, especially without assistance. 

Input devices are being created to match the application beyond simple keyboards and mice. As a result, hand motion tracking controllers have been manufactured that can recognize gestures but require no hand contact. Game controllers are being developed as well as body tracking sensors that recognize motion and gestures. New input devices are being researched to increase the ease of use when interacting with VR software.

VR users may also wear cables to offer haptic feedback in response to geometries in VR. These cables give users a sense of touch when interacting with the virtual world. 

Figure 4. NASA virtual environment reality with haptic feedback gloves. Source: Public domain

Applications

As  VR is beginning to become more widespread, many applications will continue to be explored. Many digital companies are investing heavily in VR/AR. There are many applications commercially for VR and enterprise applications are often intertwined with other application categories.

VR can be used for training and simulation in the medical field, engineering, and the military. VR can be used to boost productivity and some companies are seeing if VR can replace typical desktop-computer interactions. VR may be able to improve worldwide work collaboration.

Healthcare

The medical field sees many applications for VR. It can be used in rehabilitation and in behavioral activation therapy. Applying VR in exposure therapy has seen some promise as well. VR can help motivate people with conditions to engage in rehabilitative exercise. VR for fitness can encourage exercise through gamification and contextualizing. 
VR surgery can be conducted collaboratively and reduce the need for travel for urgent or complex cases. For example, in June 2022, a surgery was conducted collaboratively with VR to successfully separate conjoined twins. 

Education

Researchers are exploring the benefits of using VR in education. 3D visualization can help with interactive learning and VR could make it more effective. 

Engineering

VR can contribute to 3D computer-aided design (CAD) in prototyping and assembly. It can also be coupled with AI in service and performance use cases. Combining VR and AI is helping manufacturing companies to optimize their production chain. VR can help companies visualize workflow and optimize the manufacturing process.
With 3D models, designers can simulate walking through a schematic. This helps designers and workers to better understand the details of projects and assess engineering factors such as stress and wind loads. Designs can be experienced in VR and large structural designs can be viewed using a bird’s eye view and from any angle. Further VR simulations can run a series of tests on structures and designs. As well, VR can be used to control robots remotely.

Entertainment

Some of the largest users of VR are in entertainment. Popular commercial headsets for consumers include the Oculus Rift, PlayStation VR, HTC Vive, and Google Cardboard. Haptic feedback can be combined with VR to allow for a more engaging experience with the virtual world. 

Health and Safety Considerations

While VR can pose considerable advantages to many applications, it is important to consider the health effects of using VR software. Excessive use of VR may cause users to have difficulty differentiating the physical world from the virtual world. This is more prevalent in children as adults often report lowered feelings of immersion in VR. 

Related Information

Engineering360—VR bow lets users launch drones remotely

Electronics360—Video: How AI and virtual reality can help physical rehab

References

Harris, B. J. (2019). The History of the Future: Oculus, Facebook, and the Revolution That Swept Virtual Reality. HarperCollins.
Ma, D., Gausemeier, J., Fan, X., & Grafe, M. (2012). Virtual Reality & Augmented Reality in Industry. Springer Publishing.
Parisi, T. (2015). Learning Virtual Reality: Developing Immersive Experiences and Applications for Desktop, Web, and Mobile (1st ed.). O’Reilly Media.

 

 


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