What is the nature of virtual reality: it comes, obviously, from the definitions for both ‘virtual’ and ‘reality’. The definition of ‘virtual’ is near or similar to and reality is what we experience as human beings. So the term ‘virtual reality’ basically means ‘near-reality’. This could, of course, mean anything but it usually refers to a specific type of reality emulation.
We experienced the world through our senses and perception systems. It is widely understood that we own and use all five senses: taste, touch, smell, sight and hearing to experience any reality. These are however only our most obvious sense organs. The truth is that humans have many more senses than this, such as a sense of balance for example. These other sensory inputs, plus some special processing of sensory information by our brains ensures that we have a rich flow of information from the environment to our minds.
Everything that we know about our reality comes by way of our senses. In other words, our entire experience of reality is simply a combination of sensory information and our brains sense-making mechanisms for that information. It stands to reason then, that if you can present your senses with made-up information, your perception of reality would also change in response to it. You would be presented with a version of reality that isn’t really there, but from your perspective it would be perceived as real. Something we would refer to as a virtual reality.
So, in summary, virtual reality entails presenting our senses with a computer generated virtual environment that we can explore in some fashion. Unlike traditional user interfaces, VR places the user inside an experience. Instead of viewing objects and characters on a screen in front of them, users are immersed and able to interact with said objects and character in a 3D worlds. By simulating as many senses as possible, such as vision, hearing, touch, even smell, the computer is transformed into a gatekeeper to this artificial world. The only limits to near-real VR experiences are the availability of content and cheap computing power
- Mental Immersion – A deep mental state of engagement, with suspension of disbelief that one is in a virtual environment.
- Physical Immersion – Exhibited physical engagement in a virtual environment, with suspension of disbelief that one is in a virtual environment.
Pure academic debate aside, it is widely accepted that hearing is arguably more relevant than vision to a person’s sense of space and human beings react more quickly to audio cues than to visual cues. In order create truly immersive Virtual Reality experiences, accurate environmental sounds and spatial characteristics are a must. These lend a powerful sense of presence to a virtual world.
- 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.
- 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.