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Virtual and Augmented Reality

Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) technologies are garnering a lot of attention these days because of their potential applications in several areas of our daily lives. Research has shown that these two technologies have widespread applications in several areas of our daily lives. Because of this reason, we have witnessed a lot of investments in these fields by various enterprises and industries in recent times.
VR involves the use of computer technology to create a three dimensional (3D) simulated environment. It places the user inside the simulation and allows the user to interact with the artificial environment. Thus, in a way, it provides a near immersive environment to the user by stimulating the senses of vision, hearing, touch etc.
AR, on the other hand, is a technology, in which virtual objects (simulated objects) are added to the real world in real-time during the user's experience. VR and AR are in-fact "two sides of the same coin". While VR creates an artificial environment where the users can "immerse" themselves into, AR simulates objects (virtual objects) in a real environment in real-time. These two technologies are subsets of the broader conception called Extended Reality (XR).
The Technology Behind VR and AR
In AR, sensors and algorithms (which are sets of computer implementable instructions) are used to locate the position and identify the orientation of the camera. The AR technology then generates the 3D graphics as they would appear from the viewpoint of the camera, which is then superimposed over the real-world views of the user.
The AR systems that are available to date are of two types: Video see-through (VST) systems and Optical see-through (OST) systems. VST AR systems capture real objects or scenes by using a single camera or an array of cameras and projects them on a video monitor, with virtual objects superimposed on the real images while OST AR systems do the same thing but on a transparent display for example glasses.
In VR, however, sensors and algorithms are used to identify the location of the user's eyes and based on that location data the VR system adjusts the 3d environment generated by the system. As the user turns his or her eyes the 3d environment also adjusts accordingly. In this way, the VR system creates a "convincing, interactive " artificial world for the user. The user can interact with the VR environment with input devices like for example, joystick, keyboard, sensor-equipped gloves etc. These input devices can capture hand and finger movements, postures and gestures.
The output devices for VR systems currently available today include VR glasses, helmets, head-mounted displays (HMD) etc. Some VR outputs also include haptic devices (which are devices that engage people's sense of touch to enhance the experience of interacting with onscreen virtual objects) along with the display devices mentioned above to create an immersive experience for the user.
Applications of VR and AR
Research has shown that VR and AR technologies have widespread potential applications in several areas. In this article, however, we shall confine our discussion regarding the use of these revolutionary technologies in three major areas, namely: simulation of training environments, education and healthcare.
One of the most useful applications of VR and AR technologies is in the field of personnel training. While VR can be used in rendering a virtual environment to provide training to individuals in different areas, especially, in those fields which involve dangerous working conditions, handling fragile equipment etc., AR can be used to relay all the essential information to the users directly, via the output devices, about whatever is located in front of them or the camera. Thus, not only the risks but also the costs associated with training in certain environments are reduced.
In the field of healthcare, the use of VR and AR technologies in some specific areas is found to be quite effective, as compared to traditional techniques and devices. VR, for example, can be used to address some psychological issues like phobias, anxiety etc. by providing a virtual immersive environment to stimulate these issues and then providing behavioural training to manage them. AR, on the other hand, can be used, for example, in surgery for relaying information directly into the surgeon's field of view, via output devices (OST AR devices), in a 3d format which will help him or her to perform the surgery in a more effective manner. VR and AR devices can also be useful in providing educational training to healthcare professionals without the risk of exposing them to bio-hazardous environments. For example, these devices can be used to render a virtual 3d model of human anatomy, with which the healthcare trainees can interact using AR and VR Input-Output (I/O) devices.
In the field of education use of AR and VR devices can be used for providing a more wholesome teaching-learning experience. The immersive experience provided by the VR devices has the potential to revolutionize learning and retention of the concepts by the students and the methods of delivery of content by the teachers.
For example, a virtual chemistry lab environment can enable the students to perform chemistry experiments hands-on without having to actually use physical equipment. In this way, the risk of exposure to hazardous chemical substances can be avoided. VR also allows the teachers to monitor the emotional reactions of the students to different learning scenarios. These psychological inputs can help the teachers to modify the curriculum, method of delivery, to make the teaching-learning process truly learner-centric.
Limitations of the Currently Available Devices
The currently available devices include cumbersome headsets and display units which are not very comfortable to the users. Also, for the devices to operate, computers with powerful processing capabilities are required to be connected with these devices. This, in turn, limits the mobility of the user. There is also the issue of affordability of these devices. Any state-of-the-art VR or AR system, because of their expensive hardware and software requirements, are very costly and hence remain out of reach of the common people.
Although research and development are currently under progress to make these technologies available to the users at affordable prices by integrating AR and VR technology into smartphones here also certain technical limitations prevent the whole experience from being user friendly and less immersive compared to the costly AR and VR devices.
Further, people are also not completely aware of the full benefits of this technology and it is for this reason that the AR and VR mobile applications that are currently available in the app stores are not very popular among the users.
Concerns with Regard to the Use of AR and VR Technologies
The primary concern of using AR and VR technologies, in our daily life is the issue of privacy. Since in most cases, the AR or VR devices need to be connected to an app or software that regularly takes updates from the internet server of the developer (which is the entity which had developed the application), there is always the risk of personal data being collected and "mined" without our consent. In a developing country like India, where a personal data protection law is yet to be enforced, allowing unrestricted use of AR and VR technology will not be a wise step.
Also, the distractions created by the computer-generated virtual objects on an AR or VR display may pose a significant risk of physical accidents. The issue of lack of adequate expertise of the people engaged in the field of AR and VR content development coupled with lack of enough trained personnel in this field also is a cause of concern. Lack of adequate expertise in the field of content generation, especially when it comes to content for AR and VR, is the primary culprit behind the unnecessary AR, VR applications that are available nowadays in the app stores. These applications are mostly advertising gimmicks of different app developing entities, which do not provide any actual long-term benefits to the users.
Conclusion and Way Forward
Since the last few years, VR and AR technologies had been attracting a lot of attention and investments from different companies like Facebook, Samsung, HTC, Google etc. Most of the popular AR, VR devices and software applications that are currently available in the market, like Google ARCore, Apple ARKit, Microsoft HoloLens, Oculus Rift etc., belong to these entities. India has also joined the race with the launch of SAKAAR mobile App, which is an AR app designed by ISRO (Indian Space Research Organization) for use in android based Smartphones.
Although most of these devices and applications are currently targeting the entertainment and gaming industry, research and development is currently underway to find out ways to make these devices and software applications useful in other fields as well. Research on AR and VR technologies has been going on for the past 25 years or so. They have revealed the different potential and beneficial uses of these technologies in our daily lives, some of which have already been discussed in this article.
AR and VR based mobile applications like Pokemon Go etc. are becoming increasingly popular amongst the users and currently observed trends of usage of AR and VR mobile applications indicates that these apps are here to stay for a long time in the foreseeable future in the app markets. It is therefore important for the app developers to work on addressing the limitations and concerns that devices and software using these technologies currently have.
Integration of latest technologies like 5G, AI (artificial intelligence) into the devices will take them one step ahead in realizing these objectives. The problem of affordability can be addressed by bringing in changes into Smartphones Operating Systems so that AR and VR technologies can be effectively integrated into smartphones without compromising the experience of immersivity, a factor unique to these systems. Established players like Apple, Google etc. are also working on developing "untethered" devices (devices that need not be connected by wires to computers), which will address the issue of mobility that the currently available tethered devices are facing, without compromising the experience of the users.

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