What is VR?
Virtual reality (VR) means experiencing things through our computers that don’t really exist. From that simple definition, the idea doesn’t sound especially new. When you look at an amazing Canaletto painting, for example, you’re experiencing the sites and sounds of Italy as it was about 250 years ago—so that’s a kind of virtual reality. In the same way, if you listen to ambient instrumental or classical music with your eyes closed, and start dreaming about things, isn’t that an example of virtual reality—an experience of a world that doesn’t really exist? What about losing yourself in a book or a movie? Surely that’s a kind of virtual reality?
If we’re going to understand why books, movies, paintings, and pieces of music aren’t the same thing as virtual reality, we need to define VR fairly clearly. For the purposes of this simple, introductory article, I’m going to define it as:
A believable, interactive 3D computer-created world that you can explore so you feel you really are there, both mentally and physically.
Putting it another way, virtual reality is essentially:
Believable: You really need to feel like you’re in your virtual world (on Mars, or wherever) and to keep believing that, or the illusion of virtual reality will disappear.
Interactive: As you move around, the VR world needs to move with you. You can watch a 3D movie and be transported up to the Moon or down to the seabed—but it’s not interactive in any sense.
Computer-generated: Why is that important? Because only powerful machines, with realistic 3D computer graphics, are fast enough to make believable, interactive, alternative worlds that change in real-time as we move around them.
Explorable: A VR world needs to be big and detailed enough for you to explore. However realistic a painting is, it shows only one scene, from one perspective. A book can describe a vast and complex “virtual world,” but you can only really explore it in a linear way, exactly as the author describes it.
Immersive: To be both believable and interactive, VR needs to engage both your body and your mind. Paintings by war artists can give us glimpses of conflict, but they can never fully convey the sight, sound, smell, taste, and feel of battle. You can play a flight simulator game on your home PC and be lost in a very realistic, interactive experience for hours (the landscape will constantly change as your plane flies through it), but it’s not like using a real flight simulator (where you sit in a hydraulically operated mockup of a real cockpit and feel actual forces as it tips and tilts), and even less like flying a plane.
Do you remember last summer’s fascination with the game Pokémon Go played on mobile devices? You may not have realized it, but this was augmented reality technology becoming mainstream. The sudden popularity of the game just showed investors and creators that the world is ready for virtual ready. If people are that excited about the game on their phones that brings characters to their location, then imagine their excitement if they can visit the lands where the characters live.
Virtual reality has been preparing to go mainstream for some time, but the future of reality will look different than the headsets you are used to seeing. Instead, tomorrow’s virtual reality will have the ability to transform how we see and learn about the world around us.