How virtual reality is making the leap into real life

Headlines about virtual reality often focus on how it’s transforming the world of gaming. But VR is also revolutionising fields beyond entertainment — areas like medicine, architecture, education, product design, and retailing.

Delivering VR is a complex challenge, especially since immersive VR requires seven times the graphics processing power of a traditional 3D application. It’s already used for various workflows like product design, collaborative product development, energy exploration, and immersive training environments. Now, with a new generation of head mounted displays (HMD) making it more affordable and accessible, VR is poised to add another dimension to a wide range of professional applications.

For doctors, VR opens a full new field of opportunities to train staff or help their patients. Psychiatrists are using it to help patients deal with phobias, such as flying and claustrophobia. Virtual reality experiences provide a controlled environment in which patients can face their fears and even practice coping strategies, as well as breaking patterns of avoidance — all in a setting that's private, safe and easily stopped or repeated as required. Surgeons and surgical students use VR headsets and tools to practice surgeries and robotic surgical machines present a virtual reality view of the procedure to the surgeon via an HMD.

Virtual reality: Transforming ideas into the real thing

In the past, industrial designers of consumer products who wanted to visualise their designs in realistic lighting conditions to scale were reliant on expensive and time consuming physical prototyping. Now virtual prototyping makes this process much more efficient and interactive, allowing designers to experiment more freely for a better result. For example, automotive stylists use VR to walk around their designs in a variety of lighting conditions and understand their effect on the product in a physically accurate way.

On a larger scale, architects, engineers and planners are also using virtual reality to prototype buildings and even entire city blocks. The ability to experience structures and spaces before a single brick is laid is proving a powerful tool during both the design and marketing phases of construction projects. Industrial companies can even use VR to train engineers to work in challenging conditions without running the risk of putting new joiners in danger.

And it’s not just professionals who are benefiting. VR is also empowering consumer decision making in Audi’s new virtual showroom, Audi City, where you can explore each of their models in vivid virtual detail. Audi’s virtual showroom lets customers build custom configurations of any Audi model and experience them in a number of environments before they commit to purchase.

Experiencing media in a new dimension

Studios and news organisations are also beginning to push the boundaries of immersive VR experiences which will change the way users experience films, news stories, history and travel. YouTube has invested heavily in adding VR functionality to its services, including the dedicated 360° Channel for virtual reality videos. Others have taken the tech further still. UK based studio Marshmallow Laser Feast worked with the Forestry Commission to create an immersive virtual reality experience that allows users to see the Lake District’s Grizedale forest through the eyes of its native animals. The art project was created using a combination of 360-degree drone filming, laser scans, and CT scans to ‘hack’ users’ senses.

Virtual reality is hardly a new concept, but it’s come of age thanks to a perfect storm of technology. Breakthroughs in headset technology by companies like Oculus Rift and HTC, combined with the right hardware and software tools, are fuelling a VR explosion. Graphics processing units (GPUs) are at the heart of VR, which demand refresh rates of up to 90 times a second for each eye. A truly immersive experience requires as much as 7x the processing power needed to display a game on a typical monitor.

A full VR ecosystem will need to evolve in order to give VR developers access to a suite of APIs as well as sample code to help them develop the next ground-breaking VR application or next-generation of head mounted displays.

The availability and power of VR hardware and software tools are already enabling innovators across a broad spectrum of disciplines to merge the real and virtual worlds, creating new workflows and business models. With technology now capable of rendering nine million pixels per eye, virtual reality is set to become a powerful, mainstream medium for immersive experiences.

Walter Mundt-Blum, VP Enterprise EMEA at NVIDIA