So far, virtual reality has mostly been a colossal disappointment. But VR has had its share of breakthroughs and innovative applications. Here are seven VR technologies that work, and that may yet point the way to truly successful virtual reality.
For years now, virtual environments have been used to treat anxiety problems with exposure therapy. Psychologists treat phobias and post traumatic stress disorder by exposing the patient to the thing that causes them anxiety and letting the anxiety dissipate on its own. But this proves difficult if your stressor is a battlefield in Iraq.
Enter virtual reality. Military psychologists use simulated Iraq war situations to treat soldiers. Other therapeutic VR uses include treating a fear of flying, fear of elevators, and even a "virtual nicotine craving" simulator for smoking addiction.
VR Training Programs
Virtual reality environments have also been used for training simulators. The earliest examples were flight simulators (most of us probably remember "Microsoft Flight Simulator"), but VR training has expanded beyond just that. There are many modern military examples, including Iraqi cultural situations and battlefield simulators for soldiers. Other examples include counter-terrorism, paratrooping, welding, and mining training sims.
Multiplayer Online Gaming
One result of virtual-reality research is the existence of entirely separate virtual worlds, inhabited entirely by the avatars of real world users. These worlds are sometimes referred to as massively multiplayer online games, and the World of Warcraft is the largest virtual gaming world in use now, with 11.5 million subscribers.
Another example is Second Life. The world of Second Life can't really be classified as a game, since the goal seems really just to be to wander around and interact with people, much like the real world. There is even a Second Life Shakespeare Company that performs Shakespeare's works within Second Life.
(Image: The Second Life Globe Theater, from Pathfinder Linden)
The Nintendo Wii
Probably the most successful cousin of virtual reality on the market today is the Nintento Wii. The Wii owes its motion capture and intuitive interaction concepts to the virtual reality technologies of the past. The controller is basically a simplified version of the "virtual reality glove." Both the Wiimote and the Wii Fit offer users another way of interacting with their virtual environment without having to wear any bulky equipment.
(Image: a new take on Wii tennis by Mesq)
Modern medicine has also found many uses for virtual reality. Doctors can interact with virtual systems to practice procedures or to do tiny surgical procedures on a larger scale. Surgeons have also started using virtual "twins" of their patients, to practice for surgery before doing the actual procedure.
(Image: the Karlsruhe Endoscopic Surgery Trainer)
The latest entry in the virtual reality inspired gaming world is Project Natal, a new piece of technology under development now for the Xbox. Project Natal proposes a new way of interacting with games, and indeed with computer systems in general. In their demo video, they propose a system that requires no keyboard and no controller, where a user's voice and motions serve as their method for interacting with the system.
The demo video is impressive, but the technology has not been completed and released yet. When it does get released, however, virtual reality will take another giant step towards total immersion and common home usage.
The term "CAVE" refers to any virtual reality system that uses multiple walls with multiple projectors to immerse users in a virtual world. The first CAVE was built in 1992 as a method of showing of scientific visualizations. Now, many universities have their own CAVE systems. The CAVE is used for visualizing data, for demonstrating 3D environments, and for virtually testing component parts of newly developed engineering projects.