Virtual reality was once the dream of science fiction. Today, it is available not only through expensive technologies but on your smartphone. We explore the options.
The idea of virtual reality has been around since the 1950s, when inventive cinematographers wanted to create immersive experiences that offered more for the senses than just sight and sound. Morton Heilig’s ‘Sensorama’ from the early 1960s allowed a single person to experience a simulation of riding a motorcycle around New York, where they could feel the wind in their hair, the vibration of the motorbike, and smell aromas from the various neighbourhoods.
Fast-forward 50 years and technology has advanced dramatically, offering a whole new range of experiences and interactions with technology. A trip to the cinema now gives the audience the choice of experiencing the movie in 3D and 4D – with the aid of stereoscopic glasses, motion seats, and a theatre that is equipped to produce wind, water and aromatic effects – making the film an utterly immersive experience. Just head to Aeon Mall if you want to try for yourself.
Immersive is one thing, but to move to the next level, making things interactive is crucial. 360° videos are becoming more and more common on Facebook, which allow the viewer to look around in any direction, but their location is limited to wherever the camera is. To truly immerse oneself into a virtual environment, one must move not just their view, but their viewpoint.
The biggest players in the VR market are Oculus Rift, whose consumer-targeted VR headset was released in March 2016. The headset technology allows the user to look around the virtual world by simply moving their head, and a controller in each hand allows them to interact with the environment. The controllers include motion sensors which can track the movement of the arms and the fingers, allowing the user’s virtual avatar to be animated in real time.
Virtual reality’s main drawback is the amount of technology required to create it. While there are cheaper alternatives for headsets – which range from Bluetooth connected goggles to cardboard holders for your smartphone – the likelihood of being able to place yourself in a fully-responsive virtual world may still be a long time coming.
Enter ‘Augmented Reality’…
As an offshoot from virtual reality, augmented reality has revolutionised the way games and theatre have evolved over the last decade. While not aiming to immerse the user in an entirely virtual world, the technology aims to add virtual components to everyday life. The technology is easily downloaded onto your smartphone, which already has all the hardware required to sense and track movement.
The most basic example of augmented reality is probably Snapchat’s ‘lenses’, which combine facial recognition and motion tracking with animated overlays, creating a video that is half animated and half real that updates in real time as the person moves and talks. Similarly, there are many fashion and design apps that allow users to visualise how they’d look with different additions – InkHunter can show you how a tattoo would look on you from different angles, and Metaverse Makeovers allows users to create 3D and animated nail art, both of which work by superimposing the design onto your body and tracking your movements to update the image accordingly.
Augmented reality games made headlines during 2016 with the craze that followed the release of Pokémon Go, which lets users chase the virtual creatures as they appear against real-world backdrops – sometimes with swarms of people blocking traffic as they flocked towards a rare Pokémon sighting. The game was criticised for allowing people to play in Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, which was found to be deeply inappropriate and the game was promptly banned from the location.
Beyond gameplay, augmented reality can be of use to the education, training, and information sectors – imagine being able to hold up your phone’s camera to a broken engine or faulty wiring, and have it overlay a diagram labelling the parts and showing what should be where. Projects like Google Glass in 2014 aimed to offer miniature screens of information in the corner of your vision, with such ‘heads-up displays’ showing real-time information about the location you were in, or linking people to their social media accounts. While this particular design wasn’t continued, the market for smartglasses has expanded with numerous competitors aiming to fill the market.
Cambodia’s own augmented reality scene is small, but recently Sabay Osja have created an app that interacts with riel notes – when a 500 riel note is placed in front of the camera, a traditional Pailin peacock dancer appears; a 2000 riel note offers pictures and information about Preah Vihear, the temple featured on its reverse – which it hopes will foster both an interest for augmented reality development, and an appreciation of Cambodian traditions.
BY: PETER OLDFIELD