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Virtual reality goes mainstream

Speed read
  • Virtual reality is for more than just playing games.
  • The Internet2 Metaverse Working Group is leading the way for VR standards and interoperability.
  • Virtual reality has the potential to retool our communication and usher in a new era of collaboration.

Virtual Reality. We’ve seen the pictures of awkward, flailing gamers traipsing around in special goggles. But VR has quickly transcended gaming, and is now poised to revolutionize our communication and collaboration.

VR technology lets you be present in an environment that’s different from your actual one. You typically experience this environment through immersion in a visual and auditory simulation, often imparted through head-mounted devices like specially-equipped goggles and headphones.

<strong>Traveling light</strong>. Safety and fiscal concerns are eclipsed with the advent of the new abilities promised by VR, taking people places they could never visit before. Courtesy Internet2; Technology Network.

Much like the landscapes you experience in your dreams, the environments in VR can be physical locations that may or may not exist. Virtual reality can also be an augmented version of your ordinary reality, where you see elements superimposed over the real world.

While this makes for an entertaining experience, the technology is much more than fun and games, says Ben Fineman, program manager for NET+ video, voice, & collaboration services at Internet2. VR promises a new way to take field trips, a better way to train students locally and from a distance, a superior method of creating designs — but the true potential lies in how it will remake the way we collaborate.

“Collaboration is the end game.” Fineman says. “When we have the technologies to not only enable the visual experience of being immersed in a virtual environment, but also to map our bodies to avatars with robust motion tracking, robust facial expression tracking — then you’ll get all the non-verbal communication we have in person-to-person conversation. You’ll be across the country and yet we’ll be sitting together at a virtual conference room table and having the same quality of conversation.”

Virtual Reality is already here

  • Google Expedition  — Immersive virtual journeys bring classroom lessons to life.
  • YouTube #360Video  — Self-curating channel for all 360º videos posted to YouTube.
  • Headcase — A 360° VR studio producing premium live action VR experiences.
  • You Visit  — Virtual tours showcase a business or institution in an engaging and realistic way.
Courtesy Internet2;CallT2.

With VR, medical students can train for surgery, rendering cadavers a thing of the past. A homeowner can repair a faucet without paying for a plumber’s visit — she’ll just see the tools and techniques virtually represented before her eyes. Universities will have a new way to deliver distance education, offering a learning experience that is much more engaging than the blind chat room many remote learning environments offer.

Onsite visits become more accessible to VR users as well, and this means a great cost savings. “When you’re talking about travel, or online learning for conferences, meetings, all of the same advantages of video conferencing are potentially available in VR as well, with a much higher emotional impact,” says Chris Collins, manager of the center for simulations in virtual environments research at the University of Cincinnati.

VR can also take students to places they wouldn’t be able to visit otherwise. “There are all sorts of applications where it would either be too expensive or dangerous to send students,” says Collins, who was the 2015 recipient of Internet2’s Gender Diversity Award in Recognition of Carrie Regenstein. “For example, in our occupational safety course, an environmental health course that’s looking at mine safety, they use VR simulations because they can’t send students out into mines. So with VR you can simulate things either that you can’t do in your life or that would be unsafe or far too expensive to expose large numbers of learners to.”

Want to journey to the center of a volcano, or cruise by a black hole? It's finally possible (and not just to those with money to burn) — thanks to the power of VR.

Universities will be the likely home of advancing VR technologies, and the cost is now at a point to rival video telepresence suites.  While the most expensive VR setup is only a few thousand dollars, a videoconferencing outfit can easily surpass $100,000.

Though it reached mass acceptance with the advent of Oculus Rift, VR is still in the beta stage, Fineman concedes. It requires a high level of skill and training to develop applications. What’s more, the bandwidth required to stream 360º of real-time, hi-definition virtual environments is substantial. These are two reasons why Internet2 is taking such an active role in the technology’s development, says Fineman, who is also part of the Internet2 Metaverse Working Group

<strong>The future of education.</strong> Students learn best by doing, and at the Arlington Science Focus School (ASFS), VR proves that truism every day. ASFS uses VR to develop extensive understanding of the scientific process and content through inquiry-based learning. VR takes students to places (Mars, for instance) and gives them opportunities they wouldn't have otherwise. Courtesy Internet2; the Synapse.

“At Internet2, our core mission is to run the high-speed national backbone network for research and education. Part of that mission is helping our universities to accomplish their missions using our network. So we view virtual reality and the metaverse as an important network collaboration technology that is coming up on the horizon.”

As with the advent of the internet, standards and interoperability between virtual environments are needed, so that proprietary VR environments don’t lock users into specific software. Enabling users to seamlessly travel between virtual environments without having to use different platforms and different applications is one of the chief aims of the Internet2 working group.

Collins admits it’s easy to get excited by new technologies and consider them a panacea. Still, “when I get all ‘pie-in-the-sky,’ I truly think it’s a new medium. It’s a new way for us to interact, a new way to tell stories, and a new way for us to collaborate.”

Fineman and Internet2 also see the transformative potential of VR technology. “Think about if you could travel anywhere you wanted, if you could be with any person you wanted without leaving your home. All this will be possible with virtual reality technologies. At Internet2 we like to look where things are going, and VR really is a new communications and collaboration platform, as well as a new medium that will enable applications we haven’t even thought of yet.”

See the presentation given by Fineman and Collins at the 2015 Internet2 Tech Exchange in Cleveland, Ohio.

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