7 Virtual Reality Technologies That Actually Work

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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.

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Illustration for article titled 7 Virtual Reality Technologies That Actually Work

Anxiety Therapy

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.

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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.

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Illustration for article titled 7 Virtual Reality Technologies That Actually Work

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.

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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)

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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.

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(Image: a new take on Wii tennis by Mesq)

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Medical Procedures

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.

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(Image: the Karlsruhe Endoscopic Surgery Trainer)

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Project Natal

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.

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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.

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The Cave

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.

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DISCUSSION

I think your jumping the gun there on Natal. I'm not trying to be a hater, but nobody has any idea if Natal will work well when it's released and even if it does, what it will mean for VR. All Natal is is another way to experience a 2D or 3D game on a flat surface. My Wii doesn't give me an incredible sense of depth, and if I wasn't holding the controller it would do even less. The whole point of VR is to immerse yourself in something that isn't real but is tangible. Playing a game without a controller is just that, nothing more. Additionally I think a lot of people won't be drawn to the idea of NOT using a controller because your playing a game. A controller is something that helps connect you to that that world, and taking it away will just create another form of dissonance between gamers, much like the Wii has. I think the Wii is great, but I don't play it as much as my PS3 or 360. As a core gamer I think the idea of motion controls are ludicrous, and no controller at all is even worse. It's one thing to play a fighting sim without a controller in your hands and your body is that method, but driving games, FPS', TPS', sports games would be fine. But your still playing a game inside your living room, and that's where the actual problem lies. If Microsoft(or any console manufacturer) can take away the living room, then there truly is no need for a controller and Natal will be much more effective. Otherwise it's just going to water down the experience of gaming for 99.99% of core gamers and that's pretty much everyone who owns a 360 or PS3. And that's assuming that Natal works incredibly well on ALL it's games. Until it's relased and there are more than simulated, pre-recorded(sometimes) tech showings, that's all it is. I hope for the sake of future gaming its the most extraordinary thing ever to help get that push but it probably won't be, and it will way too expensive.