Virtual reality (VR) is no longer a fever dream of the tech obsessed. The idea of being immersed in a reality that is created and not natural has been the goal of many computer programmers and scientists over the years. With VR finally becoming a reality, though, there are both benefits and drawbacks to the technology.
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What is Virtual Reality?
Simply put, VR is a computerised simulation of natural or imaginary reality. Often the user of VR is fully or partially immersed in the environment. Full immersion refers to someone using a machine to shield herself from the real world. Partial immersion happens when a person can manipulate a VR environment but isn't tucked or locked away in a machine. However, virtual reality doesn't necessarily have to be "full immersion" to be considered a true VR simulation. Games like Second Life on the PC and control devices like the Nintendo Wii remote are VR-based products. These items let users interact with a VR environment that is a computer simulation. These VR environments can be anything from a typical game, such as Super Mario Brothers, to a fully detailed city reconstitution or a fictional fantasy land. The only limit to a VR environment is the imagination and the resources that the creator has available.
The disadvantages of VR are numerous. The hardware needed to create a fully immersed VR experience is still cost prohibitive. The total cost of the machinery to create a VR system is still the same price as a new car, around £13,000. The technology for such an experience is still new and experimental. VR is becoming much more commonplace but programmers are still grappling with how to interact with virtual environments. The idea of escapism is common place among those that use VR environments and people often live in the virtual world instead of dealing with the real one. This happens even in the low quality and fairly hard to use VR environments that are online right now. One worry is that as VR environments become much higher quality and immersive, they will become attractive to those wishing to escape real life. Another concern is VR training. Training with a VR environment does not have the same consequences as training and working in the real world. This means that even if someone does well with simulated tasks in a VR environment, that person might not do well in the real world.
Although the disadvantages of VR are numerous, so are the advantages. Many different fields can use VR as a way to train students without actually putting anyone in harm's way. This includes the fields of medicine, law enforcement, architecture and aviation. VR also helps those that can't get out of the house experience a much fuller life. These patients can explore the world through virtual environments like Second Life, a VR community on the Internet, exploring virtual cities as well as more fanciful environments like J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle Earth. VR also helps patients recover from stroke and other injuries. Doctors are using VR to help reteach muscle movement such as walking and grabbing as well as smaller physical movements such as pointing. The doctors use the malleable computerised environments to increase or decrease the motion needed to grab or move an object. This also helps record exactly how quickly a patient is learning and recovering.
VR Influence on Culture
Because of devices like the Nintendo Wii remote and the Xbox 360's Kinect, VR is becoming a normal way of life for many people. In the past, VR has been considered by many to be out of the mainstream. These devices bring interaction with virtual environments to the typical family household. The VR experience is now available in the family room and in front of the television, in the bedroom or anywhere else a gaming console can be hooked up. Mothers, fathers, and children are using virtual environments and often not even realising it because they are viewed as just games.
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