virtual-worldHow VR could shape our future

Despite Hollywood's best efforts to have us 'Enter the Matrix' and technology improving beyond even the wildest dreams of any fan of Tomorrow's World, Virtual Reality (VR) still manages to conjure up images of blocky, labouring animations such as those used in the 80's hit Money for Nothing by Dire Straits. Ironically, like the Matrix, there is much more going on under the surface than what we perceive. Take medical practice for example, ground breaking procedures are currently being rehearsed everyday by medical students using VR. Heart transplants, brain surgery and repairs to damaged tissue are all within the realms of this 'virtual' world. This is providing a number of benefits to the profession; firstly, advanced surgeons can pass on their life-saving skills through a means better than the traditional textbook. Procedures can be practised in advance of the real surgery, to help reduce the risk of infection and other complications, thus ensuring that the patient recovers. Lastly, virtual tongs left inside the patient will not impede on their recovery. Since the introduction of dancing like a mad fool on an arcade machine, it seems almost a distant memory when you could slip on a heavy headset and fly a virtual plane around the virtual sky at an amusement arcade. Arguably both instances make the user appear a total wally to any onlooker, but being so immersed in the game makes this fact disappear into the background. User interaction within the mainstream came on with leaps and bounds following the introduction of the Nintendo Wii (you no longer have to embarrass yourself in front of strangers, but can now do so in the presence of your family, pets and teddy bear - who are, arguably, far less likely to record it and post it on YouTube!). Although this is not strictly VR, it still suspends the real world and engages children both young and old alike in a whole new way for gamers. VR has been an intrinsic method of training commercial and fighter pilots across the world. A hydraulic simulator platform combined with realistic sounds and images, all being played at 'real-time', makes the experience very real indeed. Although this kit is not cheap by any means, it is a safer way to train - reducing costs and potential loss of aircraft and crew. Computers these days are nearly as sophisticated as the most advanced flight training equipment, if not more-so. Thanks to Channel 5's 'Gadget Show', it was only recently tested to see how a popular 'off the shelf' flight simulator enthusiast would fare in a real cockpit. Needless to say, the light aircraft and its two crew (including a professional pilot who's skills were not called upon) successfully managed a flight and landing without any emergency. Schools have been the testing ground for interaction between computers and children for years. With intelligent displays to aid in their education by replacing the humble blackboard, children today are arguably the most exposed and technically interactive of any generation. Education has taken on a whole new level, with 10-year-olds being the target for virtual lessons on dealing with bullying, gangs, drugs and even sexual predators. No longer are children, parents and teachers likely to breach the difficult topics, like coping techniques or sexual education, without the intervention of technology. This possibly leads to one question; where's left to become virtual?