What is VR?



“The area of the human cerebral cortex developed to the processing of visual inputs is in order of magnitude greater than that devoted to text and speech input. We dream visually, we read visually. Therefore, by using VR to show concepts and knowledge in a visual and effective way, we can dramatically enhance the level of understanding of any subject.”

Eli Gudza - World Links Zimbabwe (2007) (Naledi3d partners in Zimbabwe)


StereoscopeVirtual reality can be many things to many men (and women). However, VR can trace its roots back to the 1860s, when in the art world, 360-degree panoramic murals (eg. Peruzzi's work "Sala delle Prospettive) started to appear.

Moving a few decades on, stereographic photography started to become popular – and by the 1920s, car simulators were also being introduced.

Today, computer based VR tends to be used at two levels:

  • frontsimulatorInteractive 3D virtual environments, or worlds
  • Virtual artefacts, that is, objects such as a machine, device or historical object


Our favourite (modern) definition of VR is:

It is a computer-generated, three dimensional environment where the user can move around freely, see and manipulate the content of the environment – one where all communication is interactive and with immediate response”


226_0038_02.jpgMost current high-end VR environments are still based on a visual experience, displayed either on a computer screen or through special large stereoscopic display screens systems, as shown opposite. Today, these systems can be built on 3, 4, 5 and even 6 walls, each with two projectors to achieve the stereoscopic effect.

Personal “Immersive VR” is usually achieved through the use of so-called “head-mounted-displays” 226_0008_02.jpg(HMD’s), which can bring the VR experience very close to home and real, but can also have side effects such as motion-sickness.  At this most immersive level, the user is essentially isolated from the outside world and fully enveloped within the computer-generated environment.

Some simulations can also include additional sensory information, such as sound, through speakers or headphones. Some advanced haptic systems now include tactile information, or force feedback and .example can be .often found in medical and gaming applications.

Users normally interact with a virtual environment either through the use of standard input devices such as a keyboard and mouse, or at the other extreme and less commonly, through multimodal devices such as a wired glove.



Levels of VR


As can be seen from our Virtual Reality pyramid, there are different levels of VR, from non-immersive internet and desktop solutions, through to very advanced concave reality systems.

That said, it's all VR, and it’s only the price tags that differs (significantly).

However, from our experience over ten years, while there are opportunities for building large-scale VR systems in Africa, (for example, as part of an interactive science centre for kids); the major opportunity lies at the lower end, - VR on PC’s that are more and more commonly used in schools and our more disadvantaged communities. This is where VR can be used effectively in skills and knowledge transfer… where VRs’ interactive, visual properties come to the fore.


In terms of scale, arguably the most impressive audience immersive system is to be found in New York. In 2000, the American Museum of Natural History opened the most spectacular addition in its 130-year history - the Frederick Phineas and Sandra Priest Rose Center for Earth and Space.

At a cost of $240m, cutting-edge exhibition techniques create a thrilling journey for Museum visitors, taking them from the outer reaches of the universe to the inner workings of the Earth. The centrepiece is the new Hayden Planetarium, in which visitors can experience Space Shows of incredible realism. The Planetarium, as well as the "Big Bang Theatre" (a dramatic re-creation of the first minutes of the origins of the universe) is situated inside a sphere 87 feet in diameter, which appears to float in a glass-walled cube. This new facility cost $240m and visitors are given a virtual, interactive tour of the Universe, in a 450 seat auditorium and on a 26m roof mounted dome.


This all sounds very impressive, doesn't it? There is virtually (pardon the pun) no field of human endeavour that cannot be simulated using VR. A typical list of application areas might include: Industrial training, pilot training, medical training, military training, safety training, architectural visualisation, town planning, historical and cultural visualisation, museum exhibits, medical operations, industrial plant design,

virtual product prototyping, product marketing, in-store product kiosks and product configuration, etc. The list goes on, and on, and on…

So, here are our thoughts on Virtual Reality. As we don't want to claim the credit for being the sole provider of a clear and eloquent explanation of what VR is, let's have a look at what others have to say…

If you really need a dictionary definition for VR, here are a few:

  • Isdale, 2006: A computer mediated, 3D environment with viewer control over viewpoint (position, orientation, zoom). Presentation is primarily visual, possibly augmented with audio, haptics, etc. Some degree of interaction with the environment is desirable but does not necessarily require goggles, gloves, full sensory immersion, etc.
  • Wikipedia, 2006: An environment that is simulated by a computer. Most virtual reality environments are primarily visual experiences, displayed either on a computer screen or through special stereoscopic displays, but some simulations include additional sensory information, such as sound through speakers or headphones. Some advanced and experimental systems have included limited tactile information, known as force feedback. Users can interact with a virtual environment either through the use of standard input devices such as a keyboard and mouse, or through multimodal devices such as a wired glove …
  • Webopedia, 2006: An artificial environment created with computer hardware and software and presented to the user in such a way that it appears and feels like a real environment.