Living in a Virtual World: A Look into Virtual and Augmented Reality

A Smidge of VR and AR History

The idea of creating a virtual reality has been around for quite some time. Stanley Weinbaum’s film Pygmalion’s Spectacles, which came out in 1930 is said to have predicted the rise of virtual reality. He, of course, could not have imagined what it would look like today.

The goal to create an immersive experience for the purpose of entertainment, especially in Cinematography, is where the exploration of VR/AR started. In 1953 Martin Heilig Invented what was called Sensorama, a movie theater experience featuring stereoscopic 3D vision, vibrating chairs, and fans. This was to create a viewing experience for the audience that made them feel as though they were living inside the screen.

The typical picture of VR/AR hardware such as goggles, gloves, and hand controls came about when VPL Research, the first company created to specifically research VR, became the pioneer of manufacturing and selling VR goggles in 1987. In this same year, the term “Virtual Reality” was coined by Jaron Lanier, a researcher at VPL.

Now, we have entire organizations dedicated to researching and developing augmented and virtual reality software and hardware. We have Facebook’s Oculus and Google’s Earth and Microsoft’s Hololens. AR and VR are being utilized in creative ways that have the potential to improve lives and better the world.

Augmented Reality vs. Virtual Reality

While augmented and virtual reality live in the same wheelhouse, there is a fairly significant difference.

Augmented reality is software that projects images over what you are actually seeing or doing. Some examples of this are face filters on apps like SnapChat or interior design apps that allow you to “see” pieces of furniture in your home.

Virtual reality is a combination of software and hardware that completely takes over the user’s line of vision and places them in a new environment. A popular example of this is Oculus, a set of VR goggles that track your entire body and create a fully immersive experience.

There are three types of VR:

  1. Non-Immersive VR creates a virtual space that you can access via a mobile phone or computer, such as a video game
  2. Semi-Immersive VR uses both software and hardware to create a virtual space that surrounds you, such as fight simulators or amusement park rides.
  3. Immersive VR includes more complex software and hardware like motion sensors and headsets that essentially place you in an entirely new world, which you navigate through using hardware.

There is also a type of technology that combines elements of augmented reality and virtual reality to create what is referred to as Mixed Reality. 

What is AR/VR Currently Being Used For?

Augmented and virtual reality are both being utilized in innovative ways in a diverse range of fields from education, to healthcare, to equity and inclusion.

In Medicine

Virtual reality is being used widely in healthcare. A company known as Embodied Labs has developed an interactive simulation where caretakers and family members can experience the thought processes of patients who have diseases like Alzheimers. This allows others to be more understanding of certain diseases.

It is also being used for advanced medical training. Medical students are using AR and VR in the classroom to undergo high stress situations that simulate emergencies in a hospital.

Physical Therapists are using AR and VR to enhance the engagement and productivity of their patients in rehabilitating muscles. Patients go through a series of exercises within a virtual space, which makes PT feel like less of a chore, and also stimulates the brain-an essential part of recovery.

Doctors and psychiatrists are seeing major progress in the use of AR and VR to treat mental health disorders such as PTSD. Patients are exposed to situations in a virtual space that allow them to access repressed emotions in a controlled setting and in small increments.

In Education

In recent years, it has become more commonplace for teachers in K-12 education to utilize AR and VR in their classrooms. These elements,

“can provide K-12 educators with interactive and engaging tools for classroom learning. These include libraries of immersive content, experiences for specific subjects or learning objectives, and tools for students with learning disabilities.”

This technology has proven to enhance cognitive function and memory skills in developing minds due to the interaction and stimulation provided by these virtual spaces.

In the field of special education, VR is being used as a learning tool for children with Autism. It allows students with autism exposure to virtual social situations which ask them to communicate and interact with others in a safe, controlled environment.

It is also being used as a way to discover how and when implicit bias develops at a young age. A virtual reality experience called, “Teacher’s Lens,” simulates interactions with diverse sets of students to see whether students demonstrate subconscious preferences for people of certain genders or races.

In Empathy, Equity, and Inclusion

Virtual Reality is now showing up in Equity and Inclusion research and has become part of a movement known as  “empathy interventions.” It allows people to have an immersive experience which places them in a reality that is vastly different from their own, to literally “walk in someone else’s shoes,” as the saying goes.

A prime example of this is the case of Stanford Virtual Lab’s research on homelessness. They are using VR to simulate the experience of homelessness to raise awareness in hopes that this will inspire action in finding empathetic solutions to a very real problem. In this experiment, Stanford Labs found that virtual reality is more effective in creating empathy towards homeless people and has a longer lasting impact than a narrative approach.

As Ellysee Dick, a technology analyst at ITIF puts it,

“Immersive experiences can increase public awareness, and aid in promoting social change.”

Technology as a Tool for Positive Change

Augmented reality and virtual reality are proving to be effective in expanding the mind, increasing empathy, and allowing people to explore uncharted territory. This furthers the stance that technology can be a powerful tool in creating a better world.

In a matter of years, this type of technology has advanced rapidly. It was once seen simply as a tool for entertainment. Now it is seen as a way to help people take control of their mental health, allow people with disabilities to experience what it feels like to do something that they are not physically capable of, detect and correct implicit bias, and educate children.






Published: April 21, 2023


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