Immersive worlds – How virtual reality is shaping our future

Senior Reporter

From designing the Royal Navy’s latest submarines, to training facial surgeons, virtual reality is finally making itself useful. 

The history of virtual reality can be traced back as far as the 1960s, and even predates digital computing. Wanting to make theatre into a multisensory, immersive experience, Morton Heilig – often referred to as the father of virtual reality – used his skills as a cinematographer to develop a prototype called the Sensorama. The mechanical device was able to display stereoscopic 3D images in a wide-angle view, as well as stereo sound, wind, and aromas to match the short films that it played.

Illustration of Morton Heilig's Sensorama device, precursor to later virtual reality systems.
Illustration of Morton Heilig’s Sensorama device, precursor to later virtual reality systems.

It wasn’t until the 1980s that the term ‘virtual reality’ (VR) actually gained popularity, by which time gigantic headsets and power gloves were its hallmarks. Due to the high cost however, it remained on the periphery, confined largely to upmarket gaming arcades and computer science labs. But the past couple of years have seen VR undergo something of a renaissance. Initially funded via a Kickstarter campaign, Occulus Rift development kits became available in 2012, making VR accessible to pretty much anyone with a PC and a few hundred quid. Facebook purchased Occulus for $2bn in 2014, and a consumer version of the headset is due to hit the shops early next year.

In the meantime, plenty of big-name competitors have jumped on the bandwagon, including Sony, Samsung, HTC, and Google. The devices they’re developing range from headsets developed exclusively for gaming, to cardboard stereoscopic viewers that work with nothing more than a smartphone. What this all means is that virtual reality appears to have finally arrived, and we’re starting to see it being used in a whole host of new and interesting ways.

Occulus Rift headset
Occulus Rift headset

Computer-aided design (CAD) has a history that stretches back almost as far as VR, but recent advances have meant that the two are now being combined to great effect. With sites in Glasgow, Portsmouth and Bristol, BAE Systems faces unique challenges when designing vessels for the Royal Navy. VR technology is enabling its engineers across the country to virtually build and test the design of ships in visualisation suites, using a laser tracking system and interactive wand. Provided by Cheshire-based SME Virtalis, the suites allow for engineering issues to be identified and addressed before a single rivet has been drilled.

Lockheed Martin is another big name in defence that has adopted 3D visualisation, and the sector appears tailor-made for VR, where big-budget projects can be explored virtually without investing in physical prototypes. But the advent of Occulus and its competitors has meant that VR is not just the preserve of multinational corporations. The barriers to entry have been removed, and the technology has become democratised.

PhD researcher Yeshwanth Pulijala from the University of Huddersfield recently announced his plans to use virtual reality to train maxillofacial surgeons. Operations around the face and neck are intricate by nature, and a lack of space often makes it difficult for students to get a good view of what is actually being done. Using an Occulus Rift headset and a specially developed app, trainee surgeons can gain close-up 360-degree views of a surgical procedure.

“Trainees learn by observing procedures in real time,” Pulijala said. “But the problem is that not everybody can see what is happening.  This is especially the case in crowded operating rooms where surgical trainees perform multiple duties.”

The BAE VR system uses laser tracking and a wand to allow users to interact with the vessels in a 3D environment.
The BAE VR system uses laser tracking and a wand to allow users to interact with the vessels in a 3D environment.

As VR technology advances and its ability to replicate the real world becomes more accurate, its usefulness is only set to grow. Training situations like the one outlined above will become more realistic, and at some point in the not-too-distant future, surgeons will no doubt be able to practice operations in a virtual world before picking up a scalpel for real. Engineering – particularly on large-scale projects – will come to rely increasingly on 3D visualisation. Meanwhile, the VR evolution that we’re currently witnessing could soon make advanced design tools available to everyone, perhaps inspiring the Minecraft generation to become tomorrow’s engineers, and helping to solve the skills gap. It’s a virtual reality far removed from Heilig’s Sensorama – it’s just a shame we had to drop the aromas along the way.