Virtual reality's roots lie in a combination of 3-D still images, computer gaming, computer-assisted instruction, equipment simulators and entertainment experiences. Some VR setups display immersive environments through head-mounted displays that replace or supplement your view of the real world. Some use world-fixed displays that surround you in a computer-assisted virtual environment, or CAVE. VR's educational, entertainment, therapeutic and civic value can outweigh its drawbacks, which range from physical side effects to a potential loss of integration with reality.
Training and Education
Virtual reality experiences provide ways of modeling complex task-performance behaviors, many of which carry life-or-death risks in real-world learning. Instead of putting a novice driver behind the wheel, a virtual reality simulator enables him to learn basics without endangering himself or others and their property. VR also may reduce liability exposure for the driver-training school. From commercial aviation to military hardware, virtual reality CAVEs place learners at the controls of complex machinery with steep learning curves and vast penalties for improper operation. Immersive experiences also enable medical students to test surgical skills without live patients or cadavers. In some situations, VR provides the only safe environment in which to gain advanced or even basic skills, but full mastery requires actual rather than modeled experiences. VR that models the real world poorly leads to faulty training results.
Entertainment and Gaming
In conjunction with gaming and entertainment software, goggles and headsets can insert participants into imagined worlds, turning watching a screen into living an experience. Some VR headsets carry a high price tag, especially for proprietary closed-face designs. Wearing them for long periods of time produces fatigue and an unsettling feeling of enclosure. Producing and supporting VR experiences can demand extensive programming resources above and beyond the basic entertainment experience. If the viewing system lacks the proper spatial cues and fails to accommodate the participant's head movements properly, the participant can suffer from motion sickness. In some cases, VR leads to desensitizing results that interfere with the ability to perceive and react to real experiences, or that encourage the choice of VR over real life.
Help and Healing
Simulating traumatic events can help military service members work through some of the effects of post traumatic stress disorder that result from combat. The same desensitizing that becomes a disadvantage in gaming or entertainment becomes an advantage when VR places service members into settings that match actual circumstances and gradually enables them to tolerate disabling stressors. VR also can assist in treating phobias, especially those that involve handling or being near specific animals, environments or objects. Finally, VR holds promise in physical rehabilitation, providing patients with opportunities to refine ambulatory or other skills in a clinic setting before moving on to the real-life equivalent. VR that becomes too real, or proceeds too quickly to simulate an experience before the patient can tolerate it, can cause setbacks in any form of treatment.
Architecture and Planning
Applying virtual reality technology to architectural design and urban planning helps decision makers visualize the outcomes of proposed development and renewal. Early versions of this up-and-coming use of VR combined computer-aided design with geographic information systems to produce a virtual world in a Web browser. Now that websites can serve up fly-through reconstructions of real cities, the move to fully immersive experiences only requires the ability to incorporate the onscreen view into a VR headset. Meanwhile, augmented reality projects virtual information onto a real-world scene, incorporating new graphical objects or adding notations.
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