Can new virtual reality systems change the (real) world?


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Greetings to all my fellow techies. Some of the biggest news in technology this past week came from an unexpected source. Sony revealed a prototype virtual reality device designed for its PlayStation 4 gaming console. While it might be easy to dismiss such a device as having no use outside of playing games, that might be a mistake. Virtual reality is one of those technologies that could very easily change the world, the real one, and already is in many cases. It has achieved these successes despite the fact that for the past couple decades, the deck has really been stacked against it.

The biggest problem working against virtual reality is that the technology simply wasn’t available to support it. To make a VR system work in the past, you needed a really huge computer system to support it, and even then, the worlds created were less than stellar. And that doesn’t even factor in the costs involved. If Sony can field a reasonably priced VR system that requires nothing more than the hardware oomph a gaming console can provide, it could act as a template that breaks VR offerings wide open. So far, it looks like the company is on the right track.

There are very few technologies with the potential to influence and train people like virtual reality. In fact, researchers at Stanford University have done extensive studies and found out that most people’s brains can’t actually distinguish between virtual worlds and the real one.

In their experiments, experiences that happened in virtual worlds influenced people when something similar occurred in real life. The human brain can “look back” and pull from lessons learned to help with real-world decisions. And it doesn’t really matter if the original experience was virtual or real.

That’s why virtual reality therapy works so well. It can expose people to things they fear, like spiders or heights, without putting them in any real danger. They can then learn to live with those fears because they’ve experienced them, and their brain doesn’t distinguish between a virtual world and the real one when it comes to learning or memory.

The Army figured this out some time ago, and has been instrumental in implementing all kinds of virtual and near-virtual training methods. They have been using a standard non-virtualized training game called Virtual Battlespace since 2007, which recently got a big visual upgrade with Virtual Battlespace 2.

The videogame-like Virtual Battlespace simulation has been used successfully to help soldiers train how to work within a squad and as part of a team. It’s a good program for sure, but sitting at a computer is different from dropping into a virtual world, at least as far as your brain is concerned. The Army has some virtual training too, like its Expedition DI (dismounted infantry) program that can support up to 12 soldiers at the same time, all existing within the same virtual world.

The Expedition DI program allows soldiers to move and interact in an environment using a VR headset and a suit that records their movements. Realistic weapons are all part of the simulation, with the soldiers actually holding them in real life and their movements tracked within the simulation. It’s being used not just for combat training, but for what the Army calls “morals training” too, meaning it teaches soldiers to work with the local population and not do bad things, though that is secondary to keeping them alive in a combat situation and getting them the experience they need while their real lives aren’t on the line.

But here again, you have Expedition DI needing a fairly large, complicated and expensive system to work. Every soldier wears a computer and they are all networked to a server that runs the simulation. It works really well, but it’s an expensive operation, which means only a few soldiers are going to be able to train at the same time.

That is why the Sony announcement is so interesting. That and other projects aimed at bringing virtual reality mainstream like Oculus Rift are seeing huge successes within a very short period of time. Can a working, high-quality VR simulation be in reach of everyone in the near future? And how can a technology that literally allows the programming of a world, one our brain believes is the real thing, affect our actual lives? I suspect the future is going to be even more incredible than most of us can imagine, and it’s coming quicker than most of us expect.

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Commentary, Guest Columns, Sony, Tech, Technocrat, Virtual reality
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