Virtual Reality

From the digital to the true and the worlds in between

Virtual reality (VR) technologies uses computer-generated objects and scenes to create a virtual environment artificially, allowing the user to perceive them naturally, and also interact with such surroundings, thus experiencing the scene as ‘real’.

This is made possible by digital graphics and display technologies, such as 3D glasses. The user is immersed in a reality that ranges from artificial in its totality, all the way to an artificial representation of real-world objects, or a mix of both.

In the latter case, we refer to such an environment as augmented reality (VR). This implies the placement of a digital object, such as a 3D images, in the physical world as if it were physically present.

To illustrate these concepts, let us take an example right out of the entertainment industry. In the famous Jurassic Park franchise, real flesh-and-blood actors interact with their digital Jurassic counterparts to immerse the viewer in what can be described as a composite reality scene, part real and part artificial − real buildings and people, and digital dinosaurs. While admittedly, the dinosaurs in the movie are in essence, digital puppets, albeit very sophisticated ones, it is easy to see how seamless the scene is experienced by the viewers, as well as its effect and impact on their senses.

It’s these precise capabilities that hold so much potential for these technologies and their possible application to countless fields.

Let’s now substitute the actors for trainee surgeons and the dinosaurs for a digital analog of a human organ such as a heart. In this high-end training scenario, the surgeons can work on a virtual heart and perfect their technique without putting patients at risk. Moreover, the procedure could also be affected remotely (via robotic systems) on a real patient, which could be on a different continent.

These technologies are able to create value

Another exciting application is in architecture design. By using artificial reality, it is possible for architects to better envision a space and present the project to their clients. Any potential issues with the functionality or aesthetic of the building can be identified very early in the design. This drastically reduces the risk of potentially costly modifications at the construction stage or other issues that would be extremely difficult to correct later.

From these few examples, we have seen that these technologies are able to create value. Applications from entertainment to high-end training for surgeons, as well as architecture, are only a few of the already existing applications that give advantages, such as providing a risk-free training environment or improving the functionality of building designs and reducing the risk of project cost overruns. This is only the tip of the iceberg as regards the potential of these technologies.

Testament to this, the tech giants are already investing millions to develop applications with these technologies and tap into this emerging market. Add to this are key enablers such as the ever more affordable computing power, displays and sensors and also the integration of artificial intelligence (AI).

With possible applications in medicine, architecture, military, science and so many more, all these areas provide ample fertile ground for growth for myriad applications. These factors combined clearly show a bright future for these technologies, possibly limited only by our imagination in terms of applications we can dream up.

Johann Mifsud is an executive at eSkills Malta Foundation. This article collates various publicly available online sources.

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