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August 17, 2006

Virtual Reality in 2006

I’ve been reading (and contributing to) some articles about virtual reality and it’s uses. Check out Doug Mealy’s article at Military Training Technology: Sharing New Technologies. The general idea is that virtual reality can be used for more than just games.

Everyone has seen VR headsets in movies and TV. They have been around since the 80’s. But have you personally ever tried a VR headset or been in a VR ‘cave’? IMAX doesn’t count. Most likely not, unless you have been to Siggraph, E3 or GameDev or some other graphics/game trade show.

I did some research to figure out what the status of some of these technologies really is.

Proper Definition:

VR or Virtual reality is more or less self descriptive but I’ll add some detail just to be safe. It is similar to the literary concept of suspension of disbelief. It is ultimately the ability to fool the brain into thinking it is in another environment. Audio can be a big component of VR but I’m going to concentrate on the visual aspect only here. Given the ability to create an image with sufficient resolution, the human sensory system gets the illusion of reality from a number of different methods.

  • Binocular. your right and left eyes give a slightly different image. You can judge the 3d position by the difference in those images. Less than 90 deg of your vision is actually binocular. (your nose is in the way)
  • Focal distance. Yours eyes focus near and far and objects come in and out of focus. 3d software and cinematographers can induce an artificial focal distance on a scene. Detecting what the viewers desired focus distance should be is extremely difficult however.
  • Peering – The ability to turn your eyes (without moving your head) and have the image change. The human eye has a FOV of more than 200deg including peripheral vision. The display just needs to be wide enough to accomodate this. For example, its more fun to play games on large monitors.
  • Head tracking – When you move your head the image you see changes. Most people can achieve 360 degrees of vision by turning their head and eyes.
  • Motion – As objects in view move in a pattern that is predictable, the brain derives 3d relationships from the objects it sees. I.e. The frame rate and resolution must be high enough to portray objects clearly and they look more real if there is motion.

VR devices use some or all of the above methods to convince your brain that you are in some other environment.

The Marketing, Proposed Uses of VR:

Games are the obvious first choice, seconded by Flight sims, but VR has potential uses in Medicine, Engineering, Military, Design, Training, and Research.

U.S. Navy personnel using a VR parachute trainer

Some sample applications:

  • Military Training – America’s Army and Destineer are companies making games that blur the line from game to true military training and simulation.
  • Medical Patients – Calming/distraction of patients for Dentistry, Chemotherapy, or other painful procedures has proven very effective.



  • VR Caves – Similar to IMAX. Used for high end dedicated tasks such as aircraft sims.
  • VR headsets – HMD (Head Mounted Display). Can be very light and low power. Has an LED monitor for each eye and gyroscopes for tracking the position of your head. State of the art is just now achieving reasonable resolutions.

NOTE: 3d monitors look basically like 2d monitors but attempts to present dual images to the eyes. These may or may not require special glasses. I don’t consider this to be truly VR, since the image wont move with your head or give decent peripheral vision

Recording and Media Creation: (for static VR)

  • Dual cameras – Two cameras can simulate left and right eyes recording views from two difference perspectives.
  • DirectX/NVidia – Games and 3d software can create VR by alternately creating the right and left eye frames. This can be done automaticaly for applications that use DirectX on NVidia hardware powerfull enough to generate frames at this double (normal) rate. (
  • Custom Tools

Static VR Storage:

  • Video Formats…
  • VREX “.vrr” – Video format for propriatary VREX DepthCharge viewer.
  • MPEG-4 Part 16 – Specifies the ability to have multiple points of view for a video.

Active VR Creation:

  • VRML – an old (but evolving) format for defining virtual environments.




I would like to go on record as predicting a big expansion in VR/HMD/3d viewing market in the near future. The technology is very near to crossing the point of price-performance that is acceptable to the mass market. The LCD resolutions and 3d processing power that are currently available (or will be soon) are mature, stable and acceptably priced. There are no real technical issues. The only issue is a small matter of market confusion and the actual adoption of the newer high resolution LCD’s. This is already being done by such companies as eMagin. Having a big name/deep pockets player such as Microsoft / Apple/ etc. push a single VR headset standard would greatly accelerate things. I see VR headsets being quite common in 2-3 years.


Getting close here:

Filed under: Research — admin @ 10:43 am

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