Virtual Reality Headsets – All Fizzle and No Pop?

Virtual reality has been around for about thirty years. Despite this it has reappeared in the psyche of the technology world over the past few years in the form of headsets marketed to gamers. In this month’s article I will discuss why virtual reality headsets have reappeared, some of the surprising applications of virtual reality, and how you don’t have so spend money to get your own virtual reality headset.

How virtual reality works
At the crux of virtual reality is an illusion of depth. Depth is created through the headset using two separate monitors, one for each eye. Adding earphones effectively inhibits two of the body’s key senses creating an immersive environment where people are removed from reality and embedded in the world the technology shows them.

In addition to this perception of depth you may have a handset/controller to help you navigate this virtual world. If you want to cast your mind back to the games arcades of the 90s – early 2000’s a conveyer belt/treadmill to give you the added effect of actually running – not just feeling like you are.

Virtual reality and popular VR brands like Oculus Rift have become ‘affordable’ and marketable technologies thanks to improvements in displays as well as developments in motion sensing technology. The technology has progressed from bulky and heavy headsets housing two cathode ray tube (CRT) monitors to sleek liquid crystal displays (LCD) with higher display and motion sensors .

What’s not so great about it? Well it can make you feel a bit ill. Like sea sickness, virtual reality sickness is one of those things that either you either get or you don’t. So just as a warning – try before you buy.

Virtual Reality is not just for games. No really, I swear!
The automatic assumption when it comes to technology like virtual reality is that it is for gamers. Virtual reality isn’t just for gamers. In fact, virtual reality has a long history of being used for educational or medical/therapeutic purposes.

It has been used by the medical profession to educate and train without the use of cadavers. It has been used to train pilots and members of the army and astronauts helping to prepare for the worst situations in a safe hypothetical environment. Virtual reality programs have also been created to help soldiers returning from the Iraq war suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Got a phobia? Virtual reality may be able help. Based in Barcelona, Psious has developed programs which can help you to overcome anxieties in a safe environment. Available through and monitored by a medical professional, Psious can help people to overcome fears and anxieties such as; fear of flying, public speaking, anxiety attacks, fear of needles, claustrophobia or agoraphobia as well as fear of heights.

Using a virtual reality headset, Psious puts you through controlled simulations ‘or scenarios’ to help people overcome their fears or anxieties without the stress and pressure of the ‘real thing.’

Virtual reality has also been employed to help educate others on what it is like to have a mental illness. Back in 1999 (yes 1999) the New York Times reported on the technology;
“The impact of the experience is unsettling. Wearing a headset, you are immersed in a video in which it seems that you walk into a psychiatrist’s office and sit in front of his desk.

Once there, you are immediately aware of classical music playing lightly in the background, but it is not clear if it is just Muzak or it is in your head. As the psychiatrist asks you about your weekend, voices denounce him, saying he doesn’t really care. To the right, a mouse scurries across the carpet.

Looking back to the doctor, the digital clock on his desk has moved ahead an hour or so. The magazine on the opposite corner says ”Man of the Year,” but a second later, the headline melts into, ”They’re Trying to Poison You.’’ (1)

Why would you want to go through this experience? To understand what other people are going through. Mental illness is not how it is shown in the media and popular culture.
Whilst Fight Club is a fantastic movie for a number of reasons it is not going to help community workers, health care professionals or members of law enforcement understand the nature of illnesses like schizophrenia. And yes there is no single experience when it comes to mental illness. However anything that helps people understand and begin to appreciate the nature of mental illness is, I believe, a step in the right direction.

How can you try without buying?
If you want to purchase a virtual reality headset you will be looking at a $200-plus price tag. For a lot (if not most) people this is a bit steep. There is however a $10 alternative. If you have a smartphone, some time and a couple of bits of cardboard you can make a virtual reality headset.

Google have created ‘Cardboard’ a make-your-own virtual reality headset. You can download the instructions to make your own Cardboard headset at http://www.google.com/get/cardboard/get-cardboard.html

Are your spidey senses tingling at the thought of a techie crafternoon? There are a range of apps available on the GooglePlay website at https://play.google.com/store/apps/collection/promotion_3001011_cardboard_featured_apps

Craftily challenged? Don’t worry you can also buy a pre-made box. Prices start at about $25.

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(1) Alicia Ault, A virtual reality best escaped (1999) New York Times < http://www.nytimes.com/1999/07/08/technology/a-virtual-reality-that-s-best-escaped.html > accessed 7 March 2015.

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