In 1965, Ivan Sutherland described concept that could redefine the world around us at the push of a button. The Ultimate Display, as he called it, would simulate the visual and physical properties of an environment so precisely that the user could mistake it for their true surroundings — essentially a Turing Test for Virtual Reality.
While ambitious, his vision has become a guide for the VR development as the technology continues to shape and change the way we view the world.
The escapism of Virtual Reality aligned naturally with the gaming industry, leading to introduction of VR machines in arcades by The Virtuality Group. By equipping a set of virtual reality goggles, players could interact with an immersive game world. As cutting edge as the experience was, however, the player’s range of motion was severely limited to due being tethered to an arcade machine.
VR gaming then moved into our homes in the mid-90s, with the launch of Nintendo’s Virtual Boy in 1995. While untethered to anything but its controller, the console’s high price, limited library, and unimpressive graphics contributed to the lackluster reception. The Virtual Boy was discontinued less than a year later, while SEGA’s competing product, which was to be tethered to its new Genesis console, was never released due to development issues.
With the rise of powerful web standards and mobile devices, Virtual Reality gaming has seen a resurgence. Online communities have brought the technology to internet browsers while preaching how VR is changing the world we live in, and the consumer-friendly Google Cardboard offers an untethered experience using smartphone sensors to facilitate movement tracking.
Virtual Reality has seen widespread application in both medical education and in practice. While the potential of the technology was recognized back when Sutherland conceptualized his Ultimate Display, it was not until the 1990s that research teams at the University of North Carolina worked with the US Department of Defense in developing equipment for the training of surgeons.
Upon distributing the headsets and complementing simulation material, researchers discovered positive results, fueling further investment into the Virtual Reality. Focus was placed onto training for anesthesiologists, due to recognition that over two thirds of all accidents in the field could be attributed to human error.
In addition to education, Virtual Reality is also used for procedural planning and visualization today, while in pain management and recovery therapy, the technology is used to measure patient data and monitor bodily response in simulated environments.
Virtual Reality is tied closely to exciting developments such as microsurgery, where it plays a key role in performing minimally invasive procedures. Intuitive Surgical’s da Vinci uses the technology to render guiding visuals for surgeons utilizing the robotic surgical system.
In Flight Training
Like medicine, the decisions made during flight are often life-or-death. So, unsurprisingly, generated scenarios have long been a commonplace during pilot training. However, it was the need to quickly train pilots during World War I which led to the first flight simulator. Then, simulators which utilized computers for variable calculations began appearing in flight training centers throughout the 1960s.
While these digital simulators provided much more accurate feedback conditions, there was controversy surrounding the still-unrealistic flight characteristics which were accused of resulting in negative skills. Nonetheless, the aviation community recognized its necessity, and flight simulation became a mandatory module of pilot training worldwide.
The advent of Virtual Reality has resulted in the development of full flight simulators, combining motions, visuals, communication, and air traffic. In addition to a more cohesive experience, these modern simulators offer quicker and more cost-effective training programs.
However, flight simulators have been criticized for producing “safe” conditions in which trainees respond to stimuli with full knowledge that they are in no real danger. In response, NASA and Systems Technology began development of the augmented reality-driven Fused Reality, a flight training system which generates real-time scenarios while in flight.
Whether procedurally-generating an entire alternate universe or rendering microscopic cells in our body, Virtual Reality is changing the core of gaming, medicine, and pilot training.
And with increased consumer accessibility and the development of augmented reality, or the mix of Virtual Reality with the real world, its applications are only looking to grow.
Although we may not have reached Ivan Sutherland’s ideal of a perfectly-simulated reality, the future of Virtual Reality is bright.