Your Future Reality will be Digital
ISE Magazine Volume : 50 Number: 7
By Mohsen Attaran and Rebeca Morfin-Manibo

Virtual, augmented and mixed reality applications are entering the mainstream

Virtual reality (VR) takes the user into a three dimensional interactive computer-generated environment. Participants wear a headset connected to a computer that displays 3-D images on a screen inside the headset. Via body movement or a handheld device, users “move” around the simulated environment. In augmented reality (AR), virtual information in the form of graphics, sounds or a computer generated image are added into a user’s natural environment, making it look like what the user is seeing is actually in the real world. This virtual information can be a tool to help everyday activities. Mixed reality (MR) merges the real and virtual world to create visualization where physical and digital objects interact in real time.

Evolving technologies and trends

In 1985, NASA developed a head-mounted display unit called Virtual Visual Environment Display (VIVED) to help astronauts control robots outside a space station instead of taking part in risky activity outside a spacecraft. Jason Lanier, founder of the Visual Programming Lab (VPL), coined the term “virtual reality” in 1987 (Figure 1 shows the evolution of VR and AR technologies). VPL developed a range of virtual reality gear, including the Dataglove and the EyePhone head-mounted display. In 1989, Nintendo introduced a virtual reality glove named Power Glove to use as a motion controller with the Nintendo Entertainment System. The Power Glove gained huge popularity and marked the beginning of VR controllers for computer games.

Louis Rosenberg developed Virtual Fixtures at the U.S. Air Force Armstrong Labs in 1991. The device allowed people to virtually guide machinery from a remote location. He also is credited with the most commonly discussed implementation of AR – virtual overlays onto the user’s real-world view. In 1998, Sportvision adopted this technology and developed the first-and-10 system, which generated the yellow “first down” lines that a television viewer sees during live U.S. football broadcasts.

In 2000, Bruce Thomas of the University of Southern California created the first outdoor mobile AR game, ARquake. In 2008, smartphones hit the market. The devices have been a main AR device ever since because they have all the basic hardware ingredients. In 2012, Palmer Luckey, founder of Oculus VR, went public with the Oculus Rift, which became a leading light in consumer perception of the medium. In 2014, Facebook purchased Oculus VR and gave Rift the resources to create a better VR experience. Facebook invested more than $250 million to create more VR content.

In 2013, Google launched the first prototype of Google Glass, an AR head-mounted display that overlaid small amounts of smartphone-style information while communicating directly with local devices. Google Glass was not a market success, but it reignited interest in the medium’s potential and started the trend of wearable AR.

In June 2015, Google released Google Cardboard, an inexpensive and simple VR platform for use with a head mount for a smartphone. The user runs Cardboard-compatible applications on the phone, places the phone into the back of the viewer (fold-out cardboard) and views content through the lens. The Google Cardboard app has been downloaded over 10 million times so far.

In 2015, Microsoft entered the head-mounted display field with HoloLens, which arguably acts as the first point at which AR and VR could converge. Samsung Gear VR, a mobile headset in collaboration with Oculus, was also introduced in 2015. In 2016, Sony introduced PlayStation VR to work with its Pro Game Consoles. The unit can simultaneously output a picture to both the PlayStation VR headset and a TV.

In the same year, Oculus developed a new version of Oculus Rift. The new headset offers a wide field of view and a higher screen resolution. Oculus also launched Rooms and Parties, allowing Facebook users to chat and make phone calls in virtual space. Finally, Google Daydream View was launched in November 2016. This mobile-based VR headset transforms an Android phone into an immersive, virtual reality headset. Daydream View gives users a simple way to experience 360-degree games, videos and panoramic photos.

AR and its growing market

AR technology comes in several categories, each with different objectives and applications.

The future possibilities for VR/AR are endless. The potential of VR came to the forefront when the Oculus Rift was introduced in 2012. From 2000 to 2016, we have seen major and rapid advancement in the development of AR and VR technologies that blasted past gaming for several reasons.

According to International Data Corp., digital reality markets (AR and VR) are projected to grow from $5.2 billion in 2016 to more than $162 billion in revenue by 2020. The AR market is estimated to grow by 85 percent per year for the next three years. By 2021, AR market revenue will be worth $134 billion. The VR market could reach $7 billion by 2018 and it is set to grow at an accelerated rate over the next few years and may be worth $30 billion by 2020. According to International Data Corp., the market for AR glasses (a single part of the AR market) was $209 million in 2016, a figure that could hit nearly $50 billion by 2021 – a growth rate of 290 percent per year.

Obstacles to rapid growth

A major challenge for lack of widespread AR and VR applications is a lack of headset usability. Vendors need to design headsets that fit comfortably and enable users to interact with relevant content. Today’s headsets only provide a slice of the users’ surroundings. Additionally, devices are constrained by size and weight, battery size and life, CPU efficiency and software quality. And outside of gaming, most American consumers are unaware of VR devices. A Horizon Media 2016 survey of 3,000 people found 67 percent didn’t know about VR technology, and 93 percent of the people discussing VR devices were gamers.

Finally, as demand for AR and VR increases, so does the demand for skilled workers: Graphics programming, 3-D designs and calibration, animation design, videographers, audio and video specialists, mobile app coders and developers and project managers will be in high demand. Education and training will play an important role in preparing coders, programmers, hardware developers and artists for this growing industry. Cross-training, conference attendance, seminars, webinars and staying up to date on the latest VR and AR trends will help.

Business applications

In the traditional industrial and systems engineering domain of manufacturing, AR has been used to solve challenges including vehicle simulation, automobile design, remote maintenance and inspection, inventory management and workplace ergonomics. AR and VR help designers and engineers see and interact with their creations before they hit the factory floor for production. Because AR and VR enable designers to model and test virtual prototypes, both development and production time could be reduced.

For example, Airbus is using VR to demo planes for its potential customers. Ford Motor Co.’s dedicated VR specialists use the technology in all aspects of operations. Engineers use VR to design and build a car in a virtual environment. A VR system called “Ford Immersive Vehicle Environment” translates CAD designs into virtual cars where engineers inspect car components and walk around the car itself. Ford designers use VR to collaborate with each other across vast distances.

Medical schools are experimenting with teaching surgical techniques in simulated formats. At the USC Standard Patient Studio, medical students talk to different types of patients who visit them in a virtual doctor’s office. The practice is used to teach and assess performances on different emergency scenarios.

Dentists can use VR to make dental procedures less painful and put patients at ease. In a recent study, patients reported less pain as long as they viewed nature scenes using a VR headset during a dental visit. Dental schools also are using VR to teach courses on dental anatomy. The goal is to unlock a new, enhanced learning experience for students.

VR also allows students to draw shapes in three dimensions to help them with math and makes science come to life in the classroom. AR and VR help teachers improve students’ skills and experiences quickly and safely in a completely immersed environment. Adding images with educational narrations, text and study materials into a students’ existing natural environment enhances their perception of reality.

Some schools have been using VR not just in technology classes, but in history, science, humanities and social studies classes. The data suggest students have perceived value in content that explores perspective, historical events and science through VR technology. VR is also used for out-of-classroom learning and as tutorials and training videos. YouTube 360 offers tutorial and training guides on many subjects in a 360-degree format. The immersion added to these VR tutorials makes them more effective than before.