Virtual Reality and the Omni Virtuix

Note: this was a piece of IGCSE coursework, that I have not touched up since last year. I don’t plan on touching it up, though as far as I am aware the information is still true. Hopefully by putting this up it can help students get a feeling of the kind of quality an [I]GCSE piece of coursework needs to be, or at the very least provide some interesting reading material for anybody new to the subject. Due to the nature of this work, I did not reference any of the information in it – the IGCSE does not request that essays be properly referenced.

With that in mind, please enjoy the piece!

Virtual Reality and the Omni Virtuix

Virtual reality: two words that often spring to mind countless fictional universes, bizarre futuristic gizmos and perfect worlds that, as in The Matrix, hide a much less perfect reality. But what is it really? The essence of virtual reality is simply to place the user into a world that is not our current reality, essentially transporting them out of our reality and into a computer made one (or a virtual one). While this may seem insane, it is an idea that, much like hovercars, is starting to leak out of science fiction and the future, and into the present day more.

So where did it all start? The roots of VR can be traced as far back as the 1860s, when panoramic murals such as Salla delle Prospettive by Baldassare Peruzzi began to appear. These murals were 360-degree pieces of art that aimed to immerse the viewer into an imaginary room – for example, in Peruzzi’s piece the audience arrived in a marbled room and then were asked to distinguish where the real marble ended and the illusion started (a feat which most could not). The 1920s brought the introduction of the first vehicle simulators in the United States. Over forty years later, in 1966, Thomas A. Furness III created the first flight simulator for the Air Force. Two years after that Ivan Sutherland and Bob Sproull invented what is considered to be the first VR head-mounted display (HMD) system, ironically called The Sword of Damocles due to its formidable appearance – it was so heavy that it had to be suspended from the ceiling. Virtual Reality reached new heights during the 1980s, mostly thanks to Jaron Lanier, who developed a new system which placed the user in “goggles and gloves”: essentially going back to the idea of HMD systems but adding a new sense of touch, essentially creating the archetypal VR system that would be echoed throughout further versions.

This brings us to the modern day, and with that, the Omni Virtuix. The Omni is essentially the cheapest and most modern VR system. Developed by Swedish firm Virtuix, it explores the problem that has puzzled developers for decades: how do you get a living person to move their body (especially legs) in the real world without them travelling within the room? Other systems have managed to get realistic touch, through pressure, and visuals, through tilt and magnetic sensors, but the Omni is the first system to find an affordable solution to movement, at only 500$ per apparatus. The user is first placed in a harness, in the middle of a hexagonal “bowl” with angled edges all pointing towards the centre. Using specially designed shoes with tracking balls on the sole, the user can walk up the grooved edges in a relatively usual manner, but will find that their legs are always pushed down to the centre, essentially creating a space where the viewer simultaneously moves and doesn’t move at the same time. The tracking ball sends a signal back to the monitor, which creates movement within the virtual world. Due to the “bowl” shape of the system, the user can move in any direction without any additional issues. With the addition of a headset and perhaps a pair of gloves (though not obligatory as the technology works with other controllers such as Xbox remotes and computer keyboards) you can essentially move around in an entirely virtual world in the same manner as one would in the real world: look around, go for a walk, pick up items… anything really.

Now one might wonder as to the real use of such a system. Obviously it was created by gamers, so the primary use of systems like the Omni is in the gaming world. However, the possibilities are endless. Recently, the Omni itself was combined with images from the Mars rover to create a virtual map that users could walk around on. This meant that the common man could explore the surface of Mars on foot in a realistic manner. On top of this, other VR systems have allowed medical students to apply “surgery” to fake patients so as to gain practice before they’re allowed to enter the operating theatre. Furthermore other doctors, top specialists, have combined VR with robotics to be able to perform difficult operations on patients from afar. The list goes on: from architects to museums, casual joggers to military training units.

In conclusion, virtual reality is a field that has the potential to affect millions of lives, and right now the world is on the brink of the next technological revolution. With new systems coming into place every day for cheaper prices than ever before, it’s hard to deny that at least part of the future lies in the hands of virtual reality.

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