When the first virtual reality helmets were presented to the public in the 1990s they created a sensation and everyone was convinced that electronic gaming would be permanently married to this technology and live happily ever after. But the helmets were costly and neded extremely potent computers to run them. And in the end virtual reality was by no means such a massive boom as anticipated.
In the last few years, however, it has been making something of a comeback, no longer simply as a tool for videogames but also applied to various other more important fields.
The first of these is medical. It is proving itself to be useful in treating Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder – PTSD, helping to recreate the conditions surrounding a traumatic experience in order to assimilate it. In this respect, hundreds of clinical studies have shown that virtual therapy is at least as effective as a non-virtual approach.
In the University of Southern California virtual reality techniques began to be used to help war veterans as early as the 1990s. At the time, the technology was costly and not particularly believable, but even with these limitations it showed itself to be “real enough” to offer helpful therapeutic environments for those suffering from PTSD.
Today’s simulations are of immeasurably higher quality and are proving themselves effective – and cost effective – in treating syndromes like fear of flying, until recently cured by making real airoplane flights together with a therapist. Another field of application is in school education: an immersive situation of the kind offered by VR has shown itself to be extremely useful in certain cases for assisting learning and memorizing abilities. Many children suffer from some kind of sensory processing disorder, and for them school days can be stressfully overloading, whereas VR can create environments which provide the stimulus without the stress.
Another interesting field for experimentation is that of robotic prosthetics. A VR programme has been developed through which you observe the arm you are operating as though it were yours, reducing the perception of artificiality and facilitating mental and physical rehabilitation: by feeling that the robotic arm is a part of your body and being able to adopt the point of view you want by changing your head position, you learn to carry out tasks much more easily.
In the private sector, meanwhile, virtual reality technology has been used in the launch process of a limited edition ultra-luxury car, allowing potential customers to experience the full sensations of driving the car in a way that was practically identical with that of realy doing so.
The development of new applications and functions for these technologies in many different fields points the way to a potentially vast market. Mark Zuckerberg – one of the inventors of Facebook – is certainly convinced of this: in 2014 he paid two billion dollars for Oculus, one of the most important manufacturers of headsets and software for virtual reality.