Seeing through virtual reality

Developing virtual reality technology and its uses

By Antoinette Price

VR (virtual reality) is mind-blowing in the gaming environment, plunging users headlong into breathtaking new worlds. In other fields, it allows doctors to perform surgery remotely and is formative for pilots learning to fly in sophisticated simulators.

operation_room Robotic surgery

Seeing and hearing loud and clear

The software and hardware technology that make VR possible, in which computer-simulated environments imitate a physical presence in worlds that may be real or imaginary, is constantly evolving to give users ever more life-like and accurate experiences. This year at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, US, gaming accessories alone accounted for the presence of more than 400 exhibitors in the VR category.

Crisper vision, spatial surround sound and motion tracking were some of the new features on offer, making VR gaming even more real and astonishing to users donning the latest headsets. They could almost reach out to touch and feel the people and animals populating the virtual worlds they had entered.

Adding the finishing touches

Touch is a key human sense that enriches our everyday life when we physically feel what we are experiencing with other senses. It is also the key element VR needs in order to gain mainstream popularity and acceptance. The industry must successfully pair haptics or touch technology with 3D position-specific visuals, so users can actually feel what they think they can see.

Haptic technology, which creates the sensation of touch by delivering force, vibrations or sense of motion, is not new, but it needs to be developed further for current and future VR generations. It was initially used in the 1950s for remote controlled robotic tools. It was then applied in arcade and video game applications in the 1970s and more recently has been adapted for personal computers and mobile devices. Now it is gaining acceptance as a key part of VR systems and the race is on for developers to produce the ultimate gesture control gloves which will give users a true sense of touch.

It's all down to sensors

Automotive is another industry that is embracing and developing this technology. It is being used for increasingly connected and intelligent vehicles, as was showcased at CES this year. These include proximity-aware capacitive systems, which use non-contact devices to provide high-resolution measurement of the position and/or change of position of any conductive target, and gesture-controlled access to infotainment, climate and environment systems. With a simple swipe of a hand in the air, it is possible to open the sun roof, windows or activate head lamps.

Haptic feedback touchscreens maintain the feeling of pushing real buttons thanks to small pulses occurring at intervals to represent the space felt between buttons when users swipe the screen. Hidden vibrating actuators integrating the audio system in the car seats give the tactile impression of the presence of a subwoofer without the need for the physical space to house the speakers.

Behind the virtual reality scenes

The work of a number of IEC TCs (Technical Committees) helps with the development of the different aspects of virtual reality technology. The great potential of wearables (see article in this issue) describes how IEC International Standards cover the components which are driving VR forward, enabling manufacturers to evolve reliable, effective sensors and produce audio, video and multimedia systems and equipment of high quality and performance that are interoperable with other systems and equipment.

Simplifying through standardization

Life today is full of screens, whether they’re on tablets, health monitors, mobile phone, car dashboards, ebooks, TVs, transport timetables, game monitors, virtual reality headsets or something entirely different. IEC TC 110: Electronic display devices, focuses on developing International Standards for flat electronic display devices including crystal, plasma, organic light emitting diode, 3D, flexible display devices and other emerging technologies.

As new products and applications are produced and the technology advances from merely looking at screens to touching them or going hands free, there is an increasing need to harmonize the numerous Standards for the different screen types. These IEC International Standards consider many aspects of electronic display devices, such as terms and definitions, measurement methods and customer detail specifications, whether functional or assessment (product qualification and test specifications). Additionally, since the industry must comply with government regulations, Standards prepared by IEC TC 111: Environmental standardization for electrical and electronic products and systems, also look at the reuse and recycle of displays and their components, as well as the reduction of related waste material and energy consumption.

VR headset Virtual reality headset
operation_room Robotic surgery
Glass cockpit 787 Flight simulator