Technology has transformed people’s perception of the world by either creating new environments for them to traverse, or by providing them passage to corners of the earth they will never otherwise visit in their entire lifetimes. Technology has put to reality what people in the past could only dream of. Virtual reality, briefly defined as an environment that is computer-simulated, has transcended social and geographical barriers ever since its applications have been increasingly used by everyday people.
Social and geographical barriers are just terms of the past and do not anymore apply on the strictest sense. Everyone can be anyone online. Whereas before it was limited only to labyrinth and high-cost applications availed of by expert users, virtual reality has now broadened its breadth to encompass the general public – which optimizes the Internet to configure, share and create virtual communities – benefitting society in the areas of education, law enforcement, medicine and industries.
Defining Virtual Reality
Virtual reality is an environment, which is computer-simulated, and the simulation could be that of an imaginary world, or a real one (Gajera, n.d.). Virtual reality environments are mainly three-dimensional “visual experiences” that are “displayed either on a screener through special or stereoscopic displays,” and enhanced by sensory information such as sounds that emanate from headphones or speakers (Gajera, n.d., p. 3).
There are modern applications that provide force feedback or tactile information, which are generally used for gaming and medical applications. To experience this, multi-modal devices such as the omni directional treadmill, the Polhemus boom arm, or a wired glove is used, as in Figure 1 at Appendix Page (Gajera, n.d.). Michael R. Heim, in his book entitled, “The Metaphysics of Virtual Reality,” has named seven applications of virtual reality: network communication, full-body immersion, telepresence, immersion, artificiality, interaction and simulation (Gajera, n.d.).
In light of these, a virtual environment may be defined as a digital space in which a user’s activities are monitored, and “his or her surroundings rendered, or digitally composed and displayed to the senses, in accordance with” those activities (Fox, Arena & Bailenson, 2009, p. 95). According to Jesse Fox, Dylan Arena, and Jeremy N. Bailenson, the critical element of the most fascinating virtual reality experiences is the hindering real, sensory impressions; a user’s senses are engaged in the virtual world, with the body consigned to a reality engine, as in Figure 1 at Appendix Page (Fox, Arena & Bailenson, 2009, p. 95).
Technically, the virtual reality system uses both software and hardware which allow developers to produce virtual reality systems (Riva, 2009). The hardware elements are equipments, such as the central processing unit, the monitor, and other peripheral tools that receive inputs coming from devices that are manipulated by the user, and sends “multi-sensory output” to generate an imagery of a virtual world (Riva, 2009, p. 337). Meanwhile, the software element of a virtual reality system does not really create the virtual world. Rather, there is a separate software which projects the virtual world through the use of the virtual reality software system (Riva, 2009, p. 337). Hence, a virtual reality system is made up of a graphic rendering system, a “database construction and virtual object modeling software” and the input and output tools (Riva, 2009).
The Impact of Virtual Reality on Society
Virtual Reality has taken the world by storm, and is now tagged as the next dominant technological development. In the same way as the Internet, virtual reality was created for a specific purpose – but modern technology has made it more versatile. At first, virtual reality was conceptualized as a new medium of entertainment; but as time passed, it has found more useful uses from providing online education, to applications in the medical field and giving hope to people with terminal diseases.
Currently, virtual reality is used in (i) businesses, specifically in the presentation of graphs and charts, (ii) industries like the automotive industry’s manufacturing arm, (iii) military for simulations and training, (iv) medical field for treatments of various ailments and disorders, and (v) education, specifically in laboratories, online education and virtual museums (Fortune City, 2010). It is foreseen that in the future, virtual reality will further enhance training at medical schools, commercial airlines, the Air Force, and will even be utilized by clothing manufacturers in the form of virtual reality shopping (Fortune City, 2010).
Educators and scientists have joined forces all throughout the U.S. to establish virtual reality education to students and teachers alike, through the use of head-mounted displays (HMD), Immersawalls, ImmersaDesks and Cave Automated Virtual Environments (CAVEs), see Figure 3 at Appendix Page (Rusch, Sherman & Thakkar, 2002, p. 205). CAVE has a standard size of 10’ x 10’ x 10’ space and has a floor, ceiling and three walls. Students utilizing this system don stereographic glasses which intensify images, and use a CAVE wand to assist that user as, i.e., molecule, or pedestrian, or fish, in navigating the virtual environment (Rusch, Sherman & Thakkar, 2002, p. 205).
This is just a bird’s eye view of the role that virtual reality will play in education. Despite the fact that there are a good number of educational applications of virtual reality being availed of in the U.S. these days, the development of virtual reality has not yet achieved its maximum potential in the classroom (Rusch, Sherman & Thakkar, 2002, p. 205).
The field of Career Technical Education has begun to benefit from virtual reality. Students can explore operating rooms, submarines, a prototype car, airplane cockpits, biotech laboratories, crime scenes and agricultural farms without having to travel, through the use of virtual reality (Ausburn & Ausburn, 2008). Again, through the use of CAVEs and HMDs, students are provided with three-dimensional simulations to give them a “sense of ‘being there’” (Ausburn & Ausburn, 2008, p. 43). This is not only beneficial in giving students a feel of the real thing but is also highly cost-effective for them. Those who cannot afford these courses in the past because of costs associated with training are now able to enroll in CTE courses because of virtual reality.
A good number of careers necessitate learning that will allow individuals to safely carry out their tasks amid dangerous circumstances. In the past, students had to actually go through the tests using real-life situations. Because virtual reality is supremely realistic, it enables the student to benefit from active involvement with accurate and intricate visual scenes (Ausburn & Ausburn, 2008). Hence, training programs utilize virtual reality for railway and mining operations, dangerous driving scenarios, handling of hazardous materials, nuclear energy, marine exploration, space and aviation exploration, emergency medical operations, firefighting, military and law enforcement (Ausburn & Ausburn, 2008).
The aim of these training programs is to teach students how to efficiently and effectively respond under high-cost, high-risk and complex circumstances, without damaging equipment and endangering personnel while still at training. There is no need for students to be apprehensive about the trainings because they are all simulated and safe. Despite being safe, they resemble the real scenarios such that students learn what they need to learn to equip them with the skills needed to respond according. The military uses simulated environments for its engineering squad to allow them to build or dismantle structures under different constraints without the personnel’s lives in danger.
Educational programs for courses like spray painting, bio-technology, aircraft maintenance, crime scene investigation and forensics, engineering, dentistry, surgical technology and welding also benefit from virtual technology. Because the technology is still fairly new, CAVEs are expensive to avail of. Moreover, it is also expensive to implement and sustain, because of the specialized skills that are needed to set it up and maintain it. Nevertheless, as technology continues to evolve, there is much promise for virtual reality systems that may be used through laptops or desktops, utilizing special software that are based on JAVA, Flash and QuickTime technologies (Ausburn & Ausburn, 2008). Figure 4 illustrates how virtual reality may be accessed from a web system (Ottoson & Holmdahl, 2007). Because of the benefits offered by virtual reality technologies, there is a high degree of enthusiasm surrounding it in the world of the academe. Figure 5 summarizes the benefits of virtual reality in education.
2. Law Enforcement
Taking its cue from the September 11 terrorist attacks, the U.S. has been innovating on taking protective measures preserve the security of its citizenry. One effective way of doing this is through the use virtual reality for training and intelligence gathering purposes. The U.S. intelligence community has been using virtual reality to simulate “actual battlefields in the future,” utilizing cyber weapons for initiating attacks against terrorists and other potential adversaries (Wilson, 2008, p. 4). Military use of virtual technology is efficient and effective in training personnel manage better under potentially risky scenarios. Participants utilize avatars in virtual environments that simulate, i.e., a checkpoint in Iraq, or a New York subway tunnel subjected to terroristic chemical attacks (Wilson, 2008).
The downside is that a study conducted in 2007 showed that American firms are not ready to take the lead in embracing Web 2.0 technology which is the foundation of virtual technology in the years to come. The leaders in this area are (i) India, with plans of escalating their virtual reality investments by 80%, (ii) Asia-Pacific companies, by 69%, (iii) European companies, by 65%, (iv) Chinese companies, by 64%, (v) North American companies, by 64%, and (v) Latin American companies, by 62% (Wilson, 2008, p. 4). Number one in the list, India, has been showing a strong economic presence in the global markets. Figure 6 indicates its industry production forecast until 2012 (Economist Intelligence Unit, 2010).
The implication here is whether the U.S. can protect its citizens if its virtual reality servers and communication systems were operated by another country – very much possible, by an enemy nation. Under wraps in the virtual reality program of the military is “Sentient Worldwide Simulation,” which will depict mass casualty events, that not only need military action but medical interventions as well. Hence, this program includes virtual reality hospital rooms that emulate military and civilian facilities, populated by avatars representing victims, casualties, nurses, the National Coast Guard and other first responders.
Prior to Hurricane Katrina, virtual reality was used as a training ground for emergency responders in the event of man-made or natural disasters. Other training simulation modules are “Urban Resolve,” for urban war fighting in Baghdad in the year 2015, with over two million simulated objects (Wilson, 2008, p. 5). In addition to this, “Noble Resolve” is being developed, which is a training exercise covering “homeland security scenarios” in the event of a terroristic attack in various strategic locations in the country (Wilson, 2008, p. 5). This allows personnel the opportunity to hone their skills in coordinating and responding.
Meanwhile, police units utilize virtual reality programs such as the Meggitt Training System, which teaches basic firearms skills and responses in “both shoot/don’t shoot decision making (Griffith, 2009). The Los Angeles Police Department uses the IES Milo System; the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority Police Department uses the Advanced Interactive Systems; and, the Phelps County Sheriff’s Department uses the IVR-300. Most of these systems permit multiple students in the virtual environment (Griffith, 2009).
Techniques in virtual reality are increasingly being utilized in medical education, treatment and diagnosis (Yellowlees, 2009). Early adoptions of virtual reality in the field of medicine pertained to representation of intricate data emanating from Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) and Computed Tomography (CT) (Yellowlees, 2009). Recently, virtual reality has been applied to virtual colonoscopy in which information from “contrast enhanced abdominal CT scan” is utilized to present a “fly-through of the colon” which is then used for screening for colon cancer. Virtual reality is also used to let medical professionals study the heart and the brain without causing damages to these organs in real people (Yellowlees, 2009). They can examine different diseases in simulated environments, as well as, responses necessary to prevent patients suffering from fatal attacks.
Phobias and post-traumatic stress disorders are also being treated now using virtual reality, Figures 7 and 8 illustrate virtual environments for the treatment of agoraphobia (Cárdenas, Munoz, González, and Uribarren, 2006). These virtual environments can help patients confront their fears by recreating them using computer technology. In particular, training for medical students are enhanced by the use of a virtual psychosis environment, wherein they have the opportunity to experience visual and auditory hallucinations of schizophrenic patients (Yellowlees, 2009).
As mentioned earlier, indispensable training may be provided by virtual reality for mass casualty, as well as for disaster response and medical emergencies. Although it has been found out that the use of standardized patients for training such as these were more effective because of the realism element, virtual reality simulations were more cost-effective, it was also advantageous in the sense that the simulations may be repeated unlimitedly, so that skills may be practiced and mastered (Yellowlees, 2009). Virtual reality has been used in other areas of medicine like in chemotherapy distraction intervention, providing leisure time opportunities for people with intellectual and physical disabilities, brain damage rehabilitation for stroke victims, smoking cessation, physical therapy, autism, mental retardation and other relevant areas.
Marketing efforts for businesses have been greatly enhanced by virtual reality. Business owners can now advertise their products over various multi-media, and depict a 360-degree image of products that they are manufacturing, marketing and selling. Websites have been high-tech critical missions for Top 500 companies, triggering a competition on virtual reality advertising (Kassaye, 2006). Figure 9 depicts a chart tracing these new breed of competitors and how they fare through their communication objectives (Kassaye, 2006). Meanwhile, virtual reality is also useful for the manufacturing process, because layout planning for assembly systems and machines require “more data than the basis geometry (Okulicz, 2004). Moreover, 3D CAD Systems are not effective for plotting out production processes, and virtual reality has no restrictions as the two aforementioned processes (Okulicz,2004). In addition to this, virtual reality provides semi-immersive and/or interactive immersive visualization that is essential for the visual estimation of each manufacturing process (Okulicz, 2004).
With some slight overlap with the aforementioned field of Education, virtual reality platforms are valuable in training and education for businesses. For instance, “developing, testing and operating” sophisticated machinery and fixing it under tight tire pressure when it malfunctions are some skills that employees in the industries have to master (Blumel, Termath and Haase, 2009). Companies benefit from investing in learning platforms like the Fraunhoffer IFF Learning Platform which utilizes virtual reality in customizing training modules to suit its end users’ levels of knowledge through configuration (Blumel, Termath & Haase, 2009).
Virtual Reality in the field of business encompasses a much broader scope, and development in this area is anticipated to be quick and impressive. In some industries, particularly that of construction, virtual reality has been applied to simulate office environments wherein real-time coordination can be done. This is very useful in project management wherein the main participants are located in different locations. They can simply log on to the virtual environment and provide updates for others to see. There is no need to call on meetings in a physical location because this can be done in virtual reality.
People have benefited from virtual reality in more ways than one, attesting to the fact that it has positively impacted society in general. Education has been enhanced by virtual reality, and students have been provided a new dimension of learning that prepares them for their chosen careers more efficiently. The dangers associated with real situations have been eliminated because they can already be replicated using virtual reality. Students get the benefit of the trainings without facing real dangers.
Meanwhile, security measures being adopted by the government have been highlighted with modern technology, especially virtual reality. Police and military forces can now be trained for highly-dangerous scenarios, without actually exposing them to great risks, which is similar to what students do. The military and special forces in particular greatly benefits from virtual simulations because they can rehearse their acts before going to missions in dangerous lands. On the other hand, the medical field has furthered its growth due to the advent of virtual reality. Of the advantages of virtual reality, this is one of the most significant because of its potential in assisting scientists discover life-saving technologies and techniques. Lastly, business enterprises also benefit from virtual technology, to enable organizations to compete more in international markets. Virtual reality has a long way to go, and more benefits are anticipated for humankind. Its potentials are still great and the possibilities remain vast for applying virtual technology to life.