A few decades ago, the Virtual Reality (VR) experience was a tedious, claustrophobic world of simple shapes — planes, spheres, cones, boxes, lawns without grass, deserts without shrubs and pebbles, monochrome skies, and jerky hand controls by either a keyboard or a joystick.  There were no engaging stories that provided a satisfying role for the human visitor.  Now, VR has improved in quality and its cost is decreasing.

The range of suitable applications for VR is related to force feedback or graduated resistance as you push on a control (e.g. a hand or foot control representing gas pedal, brakes or scalpel), and to the rich software-based stories that help the user feel immersed in a virtual world.  These feedbacks are also called haptic feedback and they come through pressure sensitive hand and foot controls that allow you to be an integral part of the virtual reality experience.

VR provides a safer alternative to letting amateurs loose on dangerous and expensive equipment such as jet planes.  For decades, pilot training has been done in VR cockpits that mimic the airplane controls, and force feedback reminiscent of what accomplished pilots experience when, for example, they push the yoke forward.  Those specialized VR environments were justified even though they cost millions of dollars.  For pilot training, the aim of VR is “for the pilot to experience a sense of immersion and to feel as if they are flying a real aircraft with real controls and under real life conditions.”  VR will undoubtedly find a role in training new employees within other industries such as manufacturing.

In colleges, VR is being used as an alternative to student anatomy labs and introductory surgical classes.  Software-based 3D “cadavers” are less costly to provide than the real thing, and a VR approach can be practiced by students at almost any time of day.

Augmented reality integrates computer generated virtual images with real images.  One popular robot-aided surgery relies on an augmented reality (AR) system that can display relevant anatomy of the patient, while it simultaneously mediates surgical tool movements tracking the surgeon’s hand and fingers.  The robotic mediation allows relatively coarse movements to be translated into small, precise cutting and suturing actions within the patient.

The hand and foot controls that transmit your actions into the VR world are still a little clunky and visual displays deliver less reality than natural full motion since they are limited to 24 frames per second or 30 frames per second for movie or TV respectively.  For VR or AR to deliver life-like experience for high speed actions (ping pong, handball or combat), the frames per second capability needs to be improved.  Likewise, more sensitive and faster hand controls would offer enough fidelity to track the hand trajectory of professional players.

Consumer level equipment for VR and AR is available, e.g. Oculus Rift from Facebook ($600 for headset or $1700 for headset and PC bundle), or Hololens from Microsoft (up to $3,000 for the holographic headset).  The headsets can be cumbersome, and they require substantial computing power from the PC that drives them.  Nevertheless, VR devices are popular with gaming fans and the volume of that consumer market will help drive costs down.