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Section 2: Virtual Reality: History, Philosophy and Theory#

2.4 Applications#

Virtual reality has been described as a 'multidisciplinary effort covering everything from mechanical engineering to psychophysiology' (Rosenblum et al. 1994). The briefest of examinations into the applications of VR will support this idea. The potential uses of the technology are boundless, but there are essentially two approaches to current VR development: modelling the real world and abstract visualisation.

2.4.1 Modelling the real world

Some of the more obvious applications of VR are those where a computer permits simulations of the real world in a safe, controlled or more economical environment. The Virtual Reality Annual International Symposium (VRAIS) provides a variety of applications of this type, for example, fire-fighting training, medical examinations, driving instruction, vehicle crash testing or wind-tunnel experiments. This approach also makes the modelling of reality possible in ways that would be intractable in the real world; for example, space or deep sea travel, or even a system for examining social interaction within a family of gorillas (Allison et al. 1997). It also permits the sort of model so frequently encountered in TV archaeology, where long-since destroyed buildings are 'rebuilt' and presented in a synthetic environment.

2.4.2 Abstract visualisation

The other most commonly found approach to VR application is in those areas where large quantities of abstract data need to be manipulated, examined or accessed. Such visualisations range from common datasets such as maps, to micro and macro structures such as molecular architecture or social networks. By combining VR with Geographical Information Systems (GIS), geographical information can be explored in three dimensions (Koller et al. 1995) or the information contained within a computer database can be visualised and navigated as a solid, tangible entity (Freeman et al. 1998; Herman et al. 1998; Risch et al. 1996; Teylingen et al. 1997).

Almost any situation that requires interaction with information (even mathematical algorithms (Hibbard 1999)) can benefit from VR visualisation. Users are able to visualise and interact with information through multi-dimensional graphical representations (combined with text clues). Such representations increase users' ability to analyse the underlying data by negating the need for them to construct their own mental image of the data structure (Arndt et al. 1995; Serov et al. 1998; Stanney and Salvendy 1995).

2.4.3 Distribution

The growth in networked computer systems is also enhancing the variety of VR applications, although the advantages of accessing applications from more than one machine are still being explored. Two areas can already be identified: those where groups of people can interact within a single simulation (see Section 4), and those where information can be disseminated to wider numbers of people. As technologies develop, it will be possible for multiple users to take part in game playing, management meetings or group engineering design in three dimensions across networks (Goodrun 1994; Litynski et al. 1997; Macedonia and Noll 1997; Sato et al.1997). Distributing information to ever larger audiences, or at least making it available to the potential audience, is useful in almost every field. Communicating scientific findings and access to public information have already been enhanced through the use of distributed systems (Rowley 1998).

As the World Wide Web and its associated technologies develop, there will doubtless be an increase in the applicability of presentation mediums such as VR. There will also be a corresponding growth in the number of different applications (Encarnacao and Fruhauf 1994; Fuurht et al. 1998).

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