What’s virtual reality?

Virtual Reality (or VR) these days usually describes a spherical video or still image that one can look at from a central viewpoint. Using a headset and looking around, or dragging around with your mouse in the video on a web page, lets you investigate an entire room or space instead of a single, framed perspective. In a VR video, one can look around and see action, data, objects in all directions. It is usually created with cameras in a circular array or back-to-back fisheye lenses.

A black and white photo of a cinema audience wearing special glasses to watch a 3D film, taken during the 50s.
3D has come a long way since the early days. Image credit: The National Archives UK.

What’s 3D?

The term 3D is thrown around a lot these days…but it often refers to two different things.

One common usage is for animated characters/objects that have depth and mass, like in the Pixar movies. These animated figures use a 3rd dimension (depth), as opposed to 2D animation (like traditional cel animation) which is flat (like the Simpsons, etc.) and easier/cheaper to produce.

3D is also commonly used to refer to media which portrays/simulates depth…like the 3D movies at the cinema you need special glasses to watch, or the 3D images on a Nintendo 3DS. It is produced in various ways and flavours (lenticular, anaglyph, etc.), and may or may not require glasses to view. It is probably better to refer to this type of imagery as ‘Stereo’, rather than ‘3D’. This is because it requires both eyes, just like stereo music requires both ears. It has separate left and right data/media. Your two eyes are each seeing something slightly different in the stereo video, in order to recreate depth.

Can you have both?

Why yes, you can. It is possible to have VR images that are also stereo, making for an even more immersive experience. Stereo cameras have two lenses (one for each eye), about three finger widths apart (mimicking human interocular distance). It is possible to have stereo cameras (or regular cameras in pairs) arranged in an array to create a single spherical, stereo image/video. This is VR on steroids.

Is all this useful for teaching, learning and research?

Hells yeah. You can showcase spaces from across the planet in an immersive way. You can view a bushfire, art exhibition or event from the middle, from right within it. You can put yourself in the middle of a drama, exposition, lecture or yarning circle. And it’s all interactively engaging the viewer, who can look in any direction. Each viewer’s experience could be unique.

The good news?

You can make VR with your phone…there are apps on the app store allowing you to create spherical images or at least 360 degree panoramas (VR without a sky or floor).

There are free plugins to embed VR content in web pages now, like Pannellum. UTS has a Data Arena where people can watch stereo VR together.

YouTube and Vimeo both host VR and Stereo videos, which can be viewed in all their glory with your phone and a cheap headset like Google cardboard or VR Box.

Check out the video below to see VR in action.

Any questions? Drop a comment below or email Jason.Benedek@uts.edu.au.

Image credit: Samuel Zeller. 

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