Emerging Technology (Enhancing, Engaging, Connecting)

Virtual Reality

Reality has been in the process of being enhanced since humankind first began telling stories and painting pictures. Created or enhanced realities are a fundamental part of what makes us human and what constitutes our culture. We don’t think about stories, art, music and other creations as being enhanced or virtual realities, but they are. Add tens of thousands of years coupled with enormous advances in technology, and suddenly virtual reality (VR) seems now to have finally been discovered. Actually, it isn’t a recent development, but it has been infused with substantial technological power and is on the verge of commercial viability and mass adoption.

It Began With a Hacker

This recent phase of virtual reality ties largely to 2010 when American teenager Palmer Luckey hacked and crafted his way to a virtual reality prototype headset that would come to be called the Oculus Rift. In a classic tale that combines the power of ideas and the power of capital, Luckey the college dropout performed this feat in his parents’ garage in California with various pieces and parts. After launching a $250,000 crowdfunding campaign to support his creation and followed by $2.4 million in additional capital infusion, Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg was so impressed by the Oculus Rift that he acquired it and the organization behind it for $2 billion. Further catalyzed by significant publicity and the envy of other large technology companies, the current age of VR had begun. Companies including Sony, Samsung, HTC, Google and, more recently, Microsoft, as well as a host of emerging startups, have made very large investments in VR development.

Today’s VR

The basic elements of a virtual reality experience today include a visor, computer and software.

VR works by convincing your brain that the computer-created world you see is real. The most capable systems provide a virtual experience that includes 360-degree visual and full motion imagery that results from the motions of the user, the system or both. You aren’t merely sitting in a theater seat watching Jurassic Park on a two-dimensional screen. You are enjoying a nature walk down a beautiful, dimly lit trail in a wooded Jurassic landscape. You can turn and see around you, look closely at the plants and insects and interact visually with your surroundings.

Suddenly a realistic, three-dimensional, nine-ton Tyrannosaurus leaps directly at you, teeth snapping. You react in terror, because your brain has already notified every part of your being that this is very, very real and that you are indeed about to become prey. Graphic, admittedly. But this is the power of VR. Your eyes convince your brain that this is your reality. To this foundation, a number of other components are often added that could include game controllers, stationary bikes, treadmills and other possibilities that promote your mobility and that also add sensory stimuli to your experience.

Imagine the overpowering experience created by adding physical stimuli such as sound, feel, smell, taste and other sensations. Now you feel the leaves of the Jurassic forest brush your arms and legs as you walk past them. Your body feels the cool humidity of the approaching dusk. The air smells acrid from the decomposing plants. The sensations are so real that you become queasy and then nauseous, because you are suffering a real condition called cybersickness. Now when you see the T. Rex snap viciously at you, his hot breath, the stench of his last meal and a spray of saliva across your face all combine to reinforce through physiological means everything that your eyes alone had previously been telling your brain.

Potential Applications

One last leap of the imagination — this time in a less repulsive and more purposeful way. Imagine the power of VR technology applied to education. The ability to take students who study biology into the inner workings of a cell. To take students who study aerospace engineering to a Mars colony to design a new rover. To allow students to experience the inner workings of the United Nations. To give surgeons the ability to teach advanced techniques to doctors in developing countries. To put bioengineering students who design new prosthetics for paralyzed children into those units to experience them for themselves.

A number of factors have converged such that we are beginning to see the possibilities that virtual reality can bring to many human endeavors. VR will be used to enhance sports and entertainment, travel and leisure, social media systems and many others. VR has enormous power to not only enhance, but also help transform the learning experience. If we are wise, this will be one more quantum leap away from the lecture and toward even greater active and experiential learning enabled by virtual reality. As we have long known, this is the deepest and most effective learning.

This article originally appeared in the March 2017 issue of College Planning & Management.

About the Author

David W. Dodd is vice president of Information Technology and CIO at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, NJ. He can be reached at 201/216-5491 or david.dodd@stevens.edu.

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