Advances in Virtual Reality Bring Major Societal Benefits

Virtual reality has been a concept of science fiction for decades. Being able to simply jump into a new reality unbound by the confines of our reality was a romantic idea. This was explored (in depth) as early as 1935 with the publication of the sci-fi novel Pygmalion’s Spectacles. This featured one of the first examples of a headset that transported the user to a false world that gave the user the sense of sight, touch, sounds, taste, and smell. These ideas resonated with the sci-fi genre, one of the most well-known VR sci-fi stories of the modern day is Ready Player One. 

The VR world of the Oasis featured in Ready Player One is strikingly similar in the basic concept to Pygmalion’s Spectacles. However, Ready Player One has a more realistic take on the technology as its release coincided with, what I will refer to as, the “VR renaissance.” The VR renaissance began in the 2010’s with the sudden surge of available VR headsets for commercial sale, such as: the Vive, PSVR, Oculus, and many others. Before the VR Renaissance headsets were incredibly expensive and were available for almost exclusively businesses. Currently most headsets are still very expensive and are a large investment for anyone. Luckily this is beginning to change with the release of the Oculus Quest 2, a comparatively cheaper $299 compared to the average $800-$1000. 

However, the renaissance is still in its infancy as VR is held back by the tight relationship between hardware, costs, and technological limitations. Technology has always been a limitation on VR. This was present as far back as what is considered to be the very first example of “VR”, a stereoscope that projected a 3D image. This was created by Sir Charles Wheatstone in the mid 1800’s to be an example of stereopsis (perception of depth due to stimuli of both eyes). Of course, there weren’t computers in the 1800’s so this virtual image could do nothing more than be looked at. Slowly, as technology improved, advancements were being made to the technology. More advanced 3D imaging, basic tracking, and many other staples in today’s VR were being introduced. Businesses saw the possible gold mine that was VR and many tried to cash in on it before the technology was anywhere close to being ready. This includes the massive world-wide video game company, Nintendo. 

Nintendo tried their hand with a VR console in 1995 dubbed the Virtual Boy. This was a complete and total flop. The console was Nintendo’s worst-selling console of all time, with only 770,000 units sold. The Virtual Boy caused many users to quickly develop headaches, motion sickness, strained eyes, etc. Interestingly, Nintendo rejoined the VR market with the introduction of the Nintendo Labo in 2018, a rather limited VR add-on to the Nintendo Switch. While the labo has seen rather limited success it’s nowhere near the failure that the Virtual Boy was. The technology just wasn’t ready to be put inside a small “portable” device yet, that wouldn’t come for almost another 20 years. 

Currently your average VR user will only be able to experience the sensations of sight, sound, and very basic forms of touch and movement. Haptic feedback is the “sensation of touch to communicate with the user”. Haptic feedback has been implemented in most technology, and a lot of the time we’re not entirely aware of it. The slight vibration of your phone as you take a picture or the rumble of your controller as you play a video game, these are some examples of the most common forms of haptic feedback. In VR most controllers have rather basic haptic feedback in the form of controlled vibrations. 

With the support of visual and sound cues, even a slight vibration can trick your brain into feeling what the game or program wants you to feel. For example, the slight vibration when you slice a block in Beatsaber along with the satisfying sound effect tricks you into feeling as if you really did cut that block with a lightsaber. Of course, haptic technologies don’t stop there. Featured in Ready Player One are haptic feedback suits, full-body outfits that give the sensation of touch. However, they’re not just sci-fi, they exist and you can buy them. Using technology such as actuators and forced feedback (strips connected to the fingers that can restrict their movement) these haptic gloves are capable of exerting up to 8 pounds of force upon each individual finger. The actuators can imitate the feeling of individual raindrops as well. With these gloves, you can grip and squeeze a ball that exists only as 1s and 0s. 

However, the technology is still limited, the gloves themselves are bulky but as technology improves, they get smaller and better. Haptic suits are still rather limited. Most are more similar to a vest with limited haptic points, rather than a full-body tracksuit. The technology for a full bodysuit is 100% real, but it’s currently impractical to make due to costs and the overall bulkiness. A full haptic suit will average around $1,500. It’s rather unlikely that we will get a way to smell or taste in VR anytime soon, however it is possible to simulate movement, such as walking and running. Of course, there is hand tracking with the controllers, and full-body tracking with the additional trackers you can strap around your body. But what about walking around? Most people don’t have a giant empty room to use VR in, and headsets with cables don’t tend to be super long, the solution is a 360-degree treadmill. 

Many companies are investing in this idea, with multiple different variations of the concept. Some have slippery tracking floors, some use actual treadmill technology. The primary company that seems to be leading this industry is OMNI, as they plan to release the OMNI One in the near future. The OMNI One is listed to be about $2000 dollars. This is incredibly cheap for one of these treadmills, as most are designed to be industrial, or for businesses, clocking in around $20k-$30k So it is currently possible to experience as close to reality as you can get in VR (not counting smell and taste), but it will put you back around $4000 at the cheapest. Not many people have that much money to spend. But businesses do. 

If VR was entirely dependent on commercial sales, it would have died out long ago. Luckily for us, Businesses have kept the VR industry afloat long enough for the technology to become affordable for more people. As long as the patterns continue then it’s safe to assume the same will eventually become reality with VR accessories. Due to the incredibly high prices of VR and its accessories, why would businesses be willing to spend so much for it? Simply because of its incredible uses and applications. VR simulations have become a far more common way to train employees in a risk-free environment.  It can be used for mechanics, engineers can see a fully 3d model of their designs, teach a pilot how to fly a plane, surgeons can practice surgery, teachers can practice speaking to a crowd, there’s no limit to the applications. 

The government can also use this technology to train the military, especially the air force’s fighter pilots. This will ensure the military personnel will know how to use the machinery, combat techniques, and in general, know how to do things. This will save an insane amount of money for all who use this tool, even if they do invest thousands to get the most accurate and immersive results. Of course, haptic feedback will improve most of these experiences, imagine the difference of a mechanic actually feeling the tools compared to only seeing the tools. VR also has incredible psychological uses. VR has been used to treat common phobias, along with PTSD. Phobias can be slowly treated through virtual exposure therapy. Those with fear of heights can instantly travel thousands of feet in the air in an airplane, arachnophobes might have to hold a spider in their hand, or someone with fear of open water may be placed on a boat in the middle of the pacific. This can even cover rather abstract fears, such as social anxiety or the fear of public speaking. 

Again, Haptic feedback can help drastically here, someone who fears snakes or spiders can actually feel them against their skin furthering the exposure therapy. For PTSD treatment the subject may be forced to engage in behaviors they have been avoiding since whatever traumatic incident caused their PTSD. Such as victims of sexual assault avoiding close relationships. It has been used to help treat PTSD victims of war, including the Vietnam War and the current conflicts in the Middle East. This was also treated using forms of exposure therapy, but of course in a fully safe environment. Not only can VR be fun, but it can save companies, businesses, and governments thousands of dollars, and it can also help those struggling with various issues. The once sci-fi concept of transferring ourselves into a virtual world isn’t as fictional as it once was. However, it’s important to keep in mind that VR is very much so still in its infancy. We will be able to see this technology blossom and develop into something great. Despite many limitations imposed by the industry’s hardware, technology, and costs I am confident that VR will continue to improve. The possible benefits of this technology are borderline limitless.

Adam Hansen

Adam is a part time journalist, entrepreneur, investor and father.