Space & Innovation

Virtual Reality Overtakes More than Just Gaming

The immersive technology is infiltrating education, sports, medicine, architecture and more.

Virtual reality is a dream of video game lovers, but it is poised to blast far beyond play to education, medicine, architecture and other learning arenas.

Thanks to head gear from Facebook-owned Oculus VR (Rift) and Sony's "Project Morpheus" -- now renamed PlayStation VR -- virtual reality is expected to hit the mainstream next year.

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Some developers, however, are intent on putting virtual reality headsets to more productive uses than gaming.

Andrew Tschesnok, founder and chief executive of Organic Motion, sees the target market as including anyone who uses video, from YouTube bloggers to CNN.

Organic Motion bills itself as the world's first real-time virtual reality content creation studio and was among the innovative companies focused on the topic at a TechCrunch Disrupt startup conference in San Francisco this week.

Tschesnok showed off his company's virtual reality spin on green screen backdrops.

The Organic Motion device uses a ring of cameras to capture images of people in 3D and integrate the characters live into virtual reality video.

Tschesnok said the technology's potential uses include allowing investigators to virtually enter a reconstructed crime scene.

When Facebook bought Oculus last year in a deal valued at $2 billion, it touted virtual reality as the next major computing platform, allowing friends a means to visit one another no matter how far.

Oculus and Sony have already unabashedly courted video game makers, with virtual reality being a major theme at the Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles in June.

But the Disrupt conference took the technology a step beyond gaming, with startups such as VRChat, whose software lets people use Oculus Rift to get together in virtual worlds for conversations.

Does Virtual Reality Beat Drugs At The Dentist?

The software creates a playful universe with customizable avatars in a style reminiscent of Manga, a demonstration showed.

And the audience is small: VRChat chief technology officer Graham Gaylor claims about 600 active users.

The company's technology was used last year in one of the first university courses in virtual reality experiences in Canada.

Remi Rousseau, co-founder of two startups linked to virtual reality, said the technology was "full of social applications," allowing people to see real representations of one another, not just avatars.

He described the technology as a sort of "Skype 3D."

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His Franco-Belgian company Mimesys is testing a device that allows two people equipped with headsets to get together at a table in a virtual meeting room.

Rousseau emphasized that virtual reality holds great promise for professional applications, from presenting complex car prototypes to helping with medical care.

His second startup, Surgevry, developed virtual reality camera gear that can be worn on surgeons' heads during operations.

Virtual reality video captured that way has already resulted in sales, mainly to medical equipment suppliers who use it to show the right way to use their products.

Real estate is also seen as fertile ground for virtual reality. Startup InsiteVR created an online service that lets architects or interior designers transport people into projects to see them from the inside.

The service is available on-demand or by subscription and has 30 customers, according to co-founder Angel Say.

InsiteVR charges about $200 for the virtual equivalent of a one-bedroom apartment, Say said.

Research company Tractica recently estimated that global revenue related to virtual reality gear and content has the potential to reach $21.8 billion by 2020, with a huge chunk of that resulting from professional uses.

However the market remains far from critical mass.

While virtual reality is a hot topic, there are not a lot of sales for now, Rousseau said.

That sentiment was shared by Canada-based Retinad, which was in San Francisco showcasing software that can collect usage statistics on virtual reality applications, with the potential to distribute advertising in faux worlds.

Does Virtual Reality Beat Drugs At The Dentist?

Beverage giant Coca-Cola has started some testing, but "there are not enough players in the market to justify that big brands are starting to advertise," said Retinad co-founder Samuel Poirier.

But the market is ever-expanding. Already, Samsung Gear VR and inexpensive Google Cardboard have let people have virtual reality experiences using smartphones as screens fitted into headsets.

An exhibitor tests the virtual reality headset PlayStation VR at the Tokyo Game Show.

There remain a handful of technologies that we all wish would just go mainstream already. Jetpacks, for example. Teleportation. And 3-D project holograms -- the Princess Leia kind. Heck, we'd even settle for the low-res, two-tone version we saw in the movie. Good news, Obi-Wan. Researchers are working on 3-D holographic projectors, and this past year, we saw more progress than you can shake a lightsaber at. Here's a round-up from 2014. One of the most amazing pieces of news came from scientists at Carlsbad, Calif.,-based Ostendo Technologies. They developed a Tic-Tac-sized hologram projector chip small enough to fit inside a smartphone. The image processor has tiny light-emitting diodes (LEDs) able to control the color, brightness and angle of more than a million individual beams of light. And we won't have to settle for low-res either. The

Ostendo Quantum Photonic Imager

produces video at 5,000 dots per inch. The company thinks they could have the 3-D holographic video in a smartphone by the

end of 2015

.

RealView

based in Yokneam, Israel, has a pretty impressive 3-D display for surgeons. With it, doctors can view different parts of a patient’s anatomy “floating” in mid-air in real time during surgery. The image is made using data from an X ray, MRI or ultrasound. It's then projected into a fixed point in space, which the surgeon can turn or interact with to view parts of the organ not otherwise seen.

Ideally, a projected holographic image appears to float at fixed point in space. But we can be flexible. Take this spherical display called

Spheree

, which looks like a giant snow globe. Eight tiny projectors located at the base of the globe project images into the center that are blended together into uniform, high-resolution detail thanks to advanced software. Objects inside can be controlled with tools and simple gestures from any angle.

You know a company is serious about developing 3-D projection technology when they take the name of the Princess. Leia, that is. The holograms from

Leia Display System

work just like touch screens, but instead of images projected onto a flat panel, they're projected onto a cloud, literally. The "screen" is actually a frame into which a thin, invisible layer of mist is produced. A projector beams the images onto the vapor particles. Objects respond to touch and gesture, so that users can interact with the images as if the objects were right in front of them.

The

MisTable

also uses mist as a screen. It was created by computer scientists from the University of Bristol and is a multi-touch tabletop system that produces three-dimensional objects in a fog. Multiple users can interact with the projected objects, tilting and turning them to their hearts' content.

The promise of this technology will be holograms that you can feel. Scientists from UK-based

UltraHaptics

have developed a system that emits concentrated sound waves from multiple speakers to exert pressure that feels like an object. At the moment, the system is only able to emit basic shapes, such as a sphere, cube or pyramid. But this is just a start. Eventually, the sound will be paired with a visual component to make virtual objects you can touch and feel.

It should come as no surprise that Apple is jumping into the 3-D projected hologram ring, too. In early 2014, they patented a 3-D display system that uses two parabolic mirrors to project a digital object into the air. Like other holographic technologies, this one is also interactive.

Every year, Electrolux holds a design competition, soliciting creative and innovative ideas for appliances categorized under a particular theme. In 2014, designers submitted 1,700 entries under the theme "Creating Healthy Homes." The winner was a holographic display called Future Hunter-Gatherer, which turns hunting and fishing into a game. Chinese design student Pan Wang wanted to reconnect shoppers with their food sources. To that end, Wang developed a system that lets people first select the main ingredients for a meal. The appliance then projects the food items around the room, which the family then hunts and gathers. Once the food items are collected, the game sends a delivery request to the local grocery store. At the moment, it's just a concept, but it demonstrates a creative use for the technology. And for the effort, Wang received US $6,230 plus a six-month paid internship at an Electrolux global design center.

People who attended the

Billboard Music Awards

back in May, 2014, were surprised to see Michael Jackson perform. The pop star died in 2009, but his spirit lived on in a 3-D performance staged by Optimum Productions, Pulse Evolution, Tricycle Logic. It's not a true holographic projection, where light is beamed into a fixed space to produce a three-dimensional object. Instead, it's an optical illusion called Pepper's ghost, which involves splitting the stage into two rooms -- with only one room visible to the audience. By manipulating the viewing angle and lighting, a projection in the hidden room appears out of thin air in the viewable room. London-based

Musion

used the trickery in 2012 to bring deceased rapper Tupac Shakur back to the stage at the 2012 Coachella Music and Arts Festival. Digital Domain Media Group did a similar thing that same year with

Elvis Presley

.

Later in the year, Japanese pop star Hatsune Miku, who actually isn't a person at all, but a projection whose first album hit number one on the Japanese charts, appeared on the Late Show with David Letterman. Sort of depressing, isn't it, that a projected image makes more money than you? Ah, but it's not even a real hologram. It's just another Pepper's ghost illusion. We'll hold out for the real thing, thankyouverymuch.