The hype around Virtual Reality is not showing any signs of slowing down. The industry remains the one to watch out for this decade. Mark Zuckerberg, in particular, remains heavily invested in bringing VR tech to the masses.
Demystifying Virtual Reality
Virtual reality is of course, a computer generated 3D simulation, or an environment that can be interacted with in a seemingly physical manner by us, using specially fabricated electronic devices equipped with sensors and a screen. In a VR environment, we experience what we call immersion – the feeling of being inside and a part of that virtual world. Once immersed, you can interact with the space in meaningful ways.
The combination of a sense of immersion and interactivity is called telepresence. Computer scientist Jonathan Steuer explains the concept of telepresence as “the extent to which one feels present in the mediated environment, rather than in the immediate physical environment.” An effective VR experience essentially makes you unaware of your real surroundings and stimulates you to focus on your existence inside the virtual environment.
The complete experience of being a part of the virtual world can be realized in two aspects: depth of information and breadth of information. Depth of information refers to the amount and quality of data in the signals a user receives when interacting in a virtual environment. It could include a display’s resolution, the sophistication of the system’s audio output or the complexity of the environment’s graphics, for the user. Steuer defines breadth of information as the “number of sensory dimensions simultaneously presented.” Hence, an effective virtual environment stimulates all the human senses. Systems that give the user, force feedback and touch interaction are called haptic systems. Although virtual reality is used in a lot of military, scientific and industrial applications, it has not been able to penetrate the consumer market to its fullest.
VR extends our reach to outer space
The other industry receiving its well deserved share of hype lately, has been the space industry. Partly due to Elon Musk, and partly due to a returning fascination with the universe, we’re seeing a lot of activity up there.
For a large part of the millennial generation, one of the most popular childhood dreams was one o being an astronaut or travelling to space. As and when we grow up, we realised the space industry didn’t really grow up with us. The sheer cost of lifting things out of Earth’s gravity well pretty much negated any sort of human exploration for quite a while. While things do seem to be changing for the better, we’re at least a decade away from any sort of human space travel, let alone commercial.
All gratitude to Virtual Reality though, because it’ll bring us the next best option. Space exploration may no longer be an impossible ambition for the common masses. SpaceVR is one startup that aims to launch virtual-reality cameras to the International Space Station (ISS), Mars, the moon and anywhere else that spacecraft may travel in the future. It carries the belief that everyone should be able to experience the Overview Effect. For those of you who are unaware of the concept, the scientists and astronauts define the realization of the fact that our planet is a tiny, fragile ball of life, “hanging in the void”, shielded and nourished by a paper-thin atmosphere, as the Overview Effect.
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SpaceVR covers a major milestone in bringing space to the masses
SpaceVR used Kickstarter to fund the idea of sending a virtual reality camera to the International Space Station in 2015. The company has now changed its plans of trying to put a camera on the ISS. Instead, it intends to capture virtual reality content from its very own satellite.
SpaceVR CEO, Ryan Holmes plans to launch ‘the world’s first virtual reality camera satellite’ in early 2017. He calls it an extension of the original Kickstarter Goal, which will allow them to achieve a lot more in a similar budget. The initial Kickstarter campaign aimed to send a small 12-camera rig capable of shooting 3D 360-degree video to the International Space Station. Owing to an extravagant budget of $500,000, SpaceVR had to cancel the project a month after its launch. SpaceVR then reduced the budget to a modest $100,000 and designed a new camera with a 4-lens, 2D setup.
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In light of new funding, the company then decided to launch a satellite with complete control over it so that they can use it to constantly capture content. There will be no manual physical intervention needed once the satellite is up in space. The cube will contain a camera having two 4K sensors, each equipped with super wide field of view lenses. Overlapping footage will be shot via both the lenses. SpaceVR will then stitch that footage together and add some production value back here on Earth. Holmes also mentioned the presence of “a radio, [..] an attitude control system, [..] reaction wheels and gyroscopes that maintain stability, and [..] flight controller software that tells the satellite what to do and when.”
The satellite has been designed such that the team will be able to upload schedules to Overview 1 to direct it where and when to record. Moreover, instead of waiting for bandwidth to become available (like would have been the case on the ISS), the footage can be rapidly beamed back down to Earth. Overview 1 will be transported on board a SpaceX resupply mission that delivers cargo from Earth to the ISS. Holmes says, “NanoRacks will put it inside a box with other satellites, and this box has eight spring-loaded slots. The box will be placed on the rocket which will be launched to the space station. The ISS astronauts will then use a robot arm to grab the box and will activate the spring-loaded launchers, which will shoot Overview 1 into orbit.”
Other VR endeavors to get space to the masses
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There are multiple other ongoing attempts at bringing outer space to the masses right now. Microsoft’s Hololens is a holographic computer built into a headset that lets you see, hear and interact with holograms within an environment such as a living room or an office space. It uses high-definition lenses and spatial sound technology to create the immersive, interactive holographic experience VR demands. Microsoft is collaborating with NASA to let Hololens wearers experience Mars on Earth. OnSight, a software tool programmed by NASA, would let researchers strap on HoloLens to look at photographic data from Curiosity in 3D and plot out the route the rover should take. Under the umbrella program, called “Destination: Mars,” in partnership with Microsoft HoloLens, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California makes virtual imagery visible on top of the real world, to experience Mars as observed by NASA’s Curiosity rover.
Space Needle 360º is another VR mobile app. This is collaborating with VR photo-videographers, PANOGS, to create some unique visual experiences – fully immersive, spherical, 360 degree experiences from sites not accessible by the common masses. Space Needle 360º gives users the experience of standing on the iconic Space Needle’s spire or walking on its Halo. There’s also the ability to be flying around the city of Seattle in a seaplane in the form of spherical videos and images.
Experiencing outer space from the corner of a room on the second floor of a high-rise building is definitely a massive leap that’ll appeal to the masses. To quote Holmes, “if the average person could experience this, all across the world, then we would live in a fundamentally different society.” Although one will have to wait for a few more months before the prototypes become handheld realities, Virtual Reality is all set to be the poor man’s space programme – our best shot at going up there, for now.