Virtual reality is a concept that’s been around for decades, but it’s only in recent years that the technology has been affordable and accessible enough that the average gamer could bring it home. Today, for a few hundred dollars, you can bring home a VR headset and controllers and explore virtual worlds in a semi-immersive system.
The virtual reality systems you can bring home aren’t designed to be fully immersive. The reason is because disconnecting yourself from the world around you — especially if you’re the only person at home — could be dangerous.
If the HTC Vive or Oculus Rift are semi-immersive, what would it take to create a fully immersive VR? What is fully-immersive VR and what would it take to make it a reality?
How Does Virtual Reality Work?
Before we get into the technology behind fully immersive virtual reality, let’s have a quick crash-course on VR and how it works. Virtual reality is defined as a “computer-generated, three-dimensional environment that makes you feel like you are really in it, physically and mentally.” You can explore the virtual world, interact with objects, and live out your Tron fantasy from the comfort of your living room.
You get into virtual reality by putting on a head-mounted display that covers your eyes and — in some cases — your ears with headphones as well. Depending on the model, you’ll have either two feeds that go to a single screen or a pair of displays — one for each eye. The headset will also have motion-tracking sensors equipped so that when you turn your head, the motion will translate to your virtual avatar.
The average VR headset provides a semi-immersive experience, allow you to explore these virtual worlds without disconnecting you entirely from the world around you. Some new models are even equipped with external cameras to improve safety by allowing you to see the world around you while you’re playing.
Fully Immersive Virtual Reality
We’re still quite a ways away from creating a fully-immersive virtual reality experience, though the pieces are starting to fall into place. What do we need to make virtual reality fully immersive?
To be fully immersive, you have to forget that you’re in the real world and become fully part of the virtual one. Think of The Matrix or William Gibson’s Neuromancer, where you wouldn’t know that you were in a virtual world unless someone told you.
In addition to video and audio, haptic feedback will help to create a more immersive universe, because in addition to seeing and hearing everything that’s going on around you, haptic feedback lets you feel what’s going on as well.
This could be anything from force feedback — which stimulates your sense of touch in the virtual world — vibration, ultrasound, temperature adjustments and even electrostimulation which uses electrical impulses to stimulate the human nervous system. The latter can simulate anything from gentle touches to bullet impacts.
The Future of Immersive Experiences
For now, fully immersive virtual reality systems only exist in movies and novels but we might see the technology start to evolve and make an appearance before too much longer.
Elon Musk is working on the man-machine interface in the form of Neuralink. This could eliminate the need for virtual reality technology altogether by connecting our minds directly to the internet. However, we’re still quite a few years away from that sort of interface.
As it stands, for household use we’re still quite a few years away from having fully immersive virtual reality experiences. Currently available headsets provide an amazing experience, but it’s only semi-immersive because you’re still aware of the world around you — especially if you smack something with your controller while you’re trying to slay an enemy or swing a lightsaber.
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