Jaron Lanier, a computer scientist who worked for Atari, founded the company VPL Research along with fellow Atari colleague Thomas Zimmerman in 1984. ‘VPL’ stood for Virtual Programming Language and the company developed and sold virtual reality products. These products included a headset and gloves, for an interactive and immersive experience similar to that of VR products used today. The headset was called the EyePhone, not to be confused with Apple’s mobile handset, and was even featured in the 1992 sci-fi film, The Lawnmower Man.
VPL also licensed their technology to Mattel which was used to make the Power Glove, an affordable VR device used for the Nintendo Entertainment System in 1989. Even Sega, Nintendo’s main rivals in the early ’90s, tried their hand at VR and produced their own VR headset, Sega VR, although this never got further than the prototype stage.
There are now virtual reality arcades such as Otherworld in London which is “...a free roam VR island paradise with portals to sixteen unique virtual reality experiences.” They combine this experience with food and drink, offering a new way to enjoy time out with friends.
However, it is not just the gaming sector where this technology has been used. NASA has used VR for many years to train their astronauts. It was first experimented with as part of NASA’s training programme in 1993 when the Hubble telescope needed to be repaired. What would normally be a challenging task to replicate the conditions of space for a realistic training environment, this was made simpler by recreating a virtual Hubble telescope through VR. VR training has not only been used to prepare astronauts for their voyage into space but also to provide training whilst they’re actually there. Due to its regular use, NASA now has a dedicated VR team.
Virtual Reality has also been used in medicine, helping to treat many conditions such as Alzheimer’s, mental health and autism. Where it has really shone though is in the field of surgery. Imagine being able to see any internal organ in realistic three-dimensions. The surgeon can prepare for the surgical treatment by fully interacting with a realistic model that can be moved around 360 degrees. Such is the increasing benefits of this technology in the medical industry, British start-up Digital Surgery, who have created such VR tech, have recently been acquired by large American medical company Medtronic at an estimated figure of around £200 million.
For all the fun and education that virtual reality can provide, there are also potential side effects. Exposure to VR can potentially cause dizziness, nausea and in some cases seizures. Game transfer phenomena has also been linked to the mainstream use of virtual reality headsets. GTP is when you react to situations in real life as if you were in a game, dangerously blurring the line between the real world and the virtual world. However, I would question that side effects would occur with long exposure to television or standard video games too so is virtual reality much different?
What makes virtual reality even more accessible these days is the fact that any developer with a decent computer can create interactive virtual reality experiences and environments. Popular game development software such as Unity and Unreal Engine can be downloaded for free by anyone with an Internet connection and providing you have some knowledge of the programming languages that are used like C# or C++, virtual reality experiences can be created at home.
As with many technologies, the future of VR is unclear. But with the current mainstream access and varied applications used by a multitude of business sectors, the possibilities are endless.