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About this Article
Written by: Jordan Kaneko
Written on: December 6th, 2013
Tags: electrical engineering, entertainment, computer science
Thumbnail by: Oculus Rift
About the Author
In the fall of 2013, Jordan Kaneko was majoring in Electrical Engineering at the University of Southern California.
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Volume XVI Issue I > A New World of Opportunity: A Look Into Virtual Reality
People have shown an interest in virtual reality, long before we were capable of accomplishing it. Now, with technological advancements in computer graphics and hardware, engineers are closing the gap between fact and science fiction. Developing advanced 3D displays and increasing processing speed and response time are leading to a future with authentic, immersive virtual reality devices.

Introduction

You open your eyes. You’re standing at the entrance of a dark and ominous cave. As the mouth of the cave looms overhead, you raise your torch to try and make out what lies ahead, but everything beyond you is pitch black. You gather your wits and enter. As you steadily creep through the narrow passageway you begin to regret your decision, but you press on. Moments later, the cave opens up to a large cavern. You stop, straining to see anything ahead of you in the dim light when all of a sudden you see it. The only problem is, it sees you too. In the nick of time you draw you sword and manage to deflect the razor sharp claws of the dragon that has already begun its attack. You retaliate with two jabs and make solid contact on the second strike. The beast shudders. As you withdraw your sword from its belly and prepare to make your final stand, the dragon takes a quick step back, opens its jaws, and engulfs you in a sea of flame. Game Over. Then you take off your headset and head to the kitchen for a snack.
In recent years, technological advancements have allowed concepts that were once viewed as impossible scenarios, straight out of a science fiction story, to fruition. Presently, with the complexity and capabilities of electronic devices on the rise, virtual reality (VR) is on its way to becoming, well, a reality. The Oculus Rift Virtual Reality Headset is a new gaming console currently in development that could revolutionize the virtual reality industry for consumers. It stands to not only compete with current video games, but also potentially replace them completely. The release date has yet to be confirmed, as the system isn’t quite ready for sale yet so until then, fighting off dragons must remain in the realm of science fiction, for now at least.

What Exactly Does Virtual Reality Mean?

In the popular science fiction film The Matrix, most of the planet’s population is immersed in a completely digital world called the Matrix that they believe is real, while their bodies lie completely idle [1]. The Matrix is indeed a form of virtual reality, but it in general, the term has a broader definition. “Virtual Reality” can be any technology that involves the user in any form of visualizing something that does not physically exist. Usually this is in the context of computer-generated digital technology, but some have even gone as far as books, movies, and even simply using one’s imagination can technically be referred to as a virtual reality of sorts [2]. In terms of engineering, VR is identified as a means of relaying the senses of a user through involvement in a world created by a computer. In the context of this article, VR will refer to any visual display system that utilizes the senses and presents some form of simulated life as the production of an ideal VR system that would be indistinguishable from real life is far from becoming a reality.
The History of Virtual Reality
The idea of VR has been alive for much longer for much longer than the technology to support it due to Science Fiction media. Essentially, interest in virtual reality stems from a much larger and broader concern. The question of what is “real” and what isn’t applies directly to VR [3]. For example, in The Matrix, most of the inhabitants of the Matrix are unaware of the fact that they are even in an artificial environment. It is so believable that, to those in the system, the Matrix is their reality. This blurred line between fantasy and actuality has fueled the development of VR technology, even if the philosophical question of the validity of VR has no decisive answer. Officially, VR began in the mid 1980s when a computer scientist by the name of Jaron Lanier coined the phrase “Virtual Reality” which he defined as a technology that allowed interaction between users and programs/images via computers [2]. In the 1990s, as research progressed, there were some attempts to spread VR commercially to the masses. Unfortunately, steep prices and a lack of realism in the products prevented these products from really taking off, leaving VR out of the entertainment industry for the most part [3].

Video Games

Technically speaking, all video games fall under the broad spectrum of VR. Over time, with advances in visual graphics technology and memory storage improvements, video games have become far more detailed and lifelike. First-person shooter is a category of video games where the screen displays what the character would be seeing through their eyes versus showing the character themselves. In 1997, the popular first-person shooter Goldeneye 007 was released [4]. It is now sixteen years later and first-person shooters are still popular. Crysis 3, the third and most currently installment of the Crysis series, is another first-person shooter is known for having impressive graphics [5]. Comparatively, it is easy to see that these VR systems are only improving in detail (see Fig. 1). While these improvements are quite apparent, both have the same major drawback preventing today’s video games from complete immersion in the VR system. Currently, these games are still being displayed on flat, rectangular screens, making the fact that the games are artificial quite obvious. Despite the realistic graphics, the contents of the screen will be viewed as on object in the real world, and not truly being a part of the VR system.