In the 1990s, public display of virtual reality rarely went beyond a relatively primitive demonstration of a few block figures being chased around a chessboard by a digitized pterodactyl. In the last 20 years, however, we have seen an incredible development in technology and, at the same time, the development of VR is also continuing. While the entertainment industry is still interested in virtual reality applications in games and theatrical experiences, the really interesting uses for VR systems are observable in other fields. Taking a few examples: several architects created virtual models of their designs so that people could visit the structure before the foundation was actually laid. This way, customers can move around the exteriors and interiors and ask questions, or even suggest design changes. Virtual models can clearly give you a much better idea of what the interior of a building will look like than a miniature model. Carmakers have used VR technology to build virtual prototypes of new vehicles, testing them thoroughly, again, before producing a single physical part. Designers can thus make changes without having to discard the entire model.
The development process thus becomes more efficient and certainly less expensive, also going to have a lesser impact on the environment.
Virtual environments are also used in training programs for the military, space program, and even medical students as mentioned in previous articles. The military has long been advocates of technology and the development of virtual reality. Training programs can include anything from vehicle simulations to team combat; overall, VR systems are much safer and, in the long run, less expensive than alternative training methods.
Soldiers who underwent intense VR training eventually proved as effective as those who trained under traditional conditions. As for medicine, staff can use virtual environments to train in a variety of ways, from surgical procedures to diagnosing a patient. Surgeons have used virtual reality technology not only to train and educate, but also to perform surgery remotely using robotic devices. The first robotic surgery was in fact performed in 1998 in a Paris hospital.
The biggest challenge in using VR technology to perform this "robotic surgery", however, is clearly latency, since any delay in such a delicate procedure can seem unnatural for the surgeon and make it impossible to continue with the surgery. It can also, as explained in detail in the previous articles, be useful for the treatment of patients suffering from cognitive impairment.
VR tools are already used by Italian research institutes for the therapy and preventive diagnosis of the same neurological diseases. Another medical use of VR technology is for psychological therapy. Dr. Barbara Rothbaum of Emory University and Dr. Larry Hodges of the Georgia Institute of Technology pioneered the use of virtual environments in the treatment of people with phobias and other psychological conditions. They use virtual environments as a form of "exposure therapy", in which a patient is exposed, clearly under controlled conditions, to stimuli that cause him distress. The app has two big advantages over real exposure therapy: it's much cheaper and patients are more willing to try the therapy because they know it's not the real world. Their research led to the founding of the Virtually Better company, which sells VR therapy systems to doctors in 14 countries.
Although with the passage of time more and more realities have begun to integrate VR into their work, today there are numerous doubts about the future of technology. Among the big challenges that developers face are mainly: developing better tracking systems, finding more natural ways to allow users to interact within a virtual environment, and reducing the time it takes to create these virtual spaces. Other difficulties are related to the small number of companies that, to date, are working on input devices created specifically for VR applications. Indeed, most developers have to rely on and adapt technology originally intended for another discipline. They also have to hope that the companies that make the systems stay in business, as they tend to be small companies and not large manufacturers. As for the creation of artificial worlds, it can take a long time to create a convincing virtual environment: the more realistic the environment, the more time it obviously takes to create it, so much so that even a team of professional developers could take more than one year of work the only virtual duplication of a real environment.
Some psychologists are also concerned that immersion in virtual environments could psychologically affect a user. They suggest, in fact, that VR systems that place a user in violent situations, particularly as a perpetrator of violence, could cause them to desensitize. Indeed, there is a fear that VR entertainment systems could create a generation of sociopaths. Others aren't as concerned about desensitization, but still warn that the more realistic experiences users experience could lead to some sort of addiction to the digital world.
There have been several reports of users neglecting their real life as they prefer and find themselves safer within the virtual world. This second aspect is certainly more true where users have a poor social life or live with intolerance the difficulties of the outside world. A final emerging concern concerns criminal acts. In the virtual world, the definition of acts such as murder or sexual crimes has been highly problematic. At what point can the authorities charge a person with a true crime for actions committed within a virtual environment? Some studies indicate that people can have real physical and emotional reactions resulting from stimuli within that environment and, as a result, it is entirely possible that a victim of a virtual attack could feel real emotional trauma. Can the aggressor then be punished for causing real-life problems, despite having acted within an artificial world? Unfortunately, these are situations and questions to which we have not yet answered; it is however certain that solutions will be needed in the future and it is indeed possible that it will be precisely the need to determine them.
Translated by Arianna Giannino