Feature: Virtual reality trend gets real


The virtual reality revolution is coming. Predicted to be worth around $5 billion this year, the industry is set to balloon to as high as $70 billion in four years, according to a TrendForce study.


That’s a lot of headsets.

Whenever new technology comes along, many will dismiss it as a gimmick, and VR certainly faces its fair share of naysayers. But they dismiss it at their own peril.

From health to entertainment to porn and everything in between, VR is set to be the next big thing in tech, many industry observers say.

Prof. WongSook Lee of the University of Ottawa, an expert on VR, believes it, calling virtual reality “one of the industries of the future.”

She believes that unlike the original VR of the ’90s like Nintendo’s Virtual Boy, the technology has finally caught up with the developers’ imaginations.

“Now the head-mounted display has become a lot more practical than before,” she says. Issues such as dizziness and the weight of the headset have been fixed.

This generation is more ready for VR because it spends much more time in front of video screens than previous generations, Lee says.

Ottawa is not far behind on jumping on the VR bandwagon. SimWave, an offshoot of the military simulation developer SimFront, is a Kanata-based company developing 4D exhibits for museums across Canada.

4D is the term for interactive media that employs other senses, whether it’s generating smells as you watch a cooking show, creating the feeling of the ground shaking beneath your feet when a tyrannosaurus appears on screen or being hit with virtual gusts of air to simulate a windy day. Think the D-Box at movie theatres.

“We had these Oculus Rifts (virtual reality headsets) and we started exploring the idea of developing a similar environment that would recreate the soldiers’ PTSD issue for treatment,” says SimWave CFO Adam Caithness.

“From the PTSD world we started talking about history … and museums. Kids don’t want to just come in and read plaques anymore. That’s not cool. Looking at the artifact in the display case lasts all of five seconds. So the virtual reality stuff came in.”

With the 150th anniversary of Canada’s confederation coming up in 2017, SimWave saw an opportunity to get into the 4D exhibit market and land the lucrative government contracts that come with it.

Along with a VR scenario involving a train that is set to debut at the Canada Science and Technology Museum when it reopens in 2017, SimWave has also developed a Vimy Ridge simulation.

The Vimy scenario demo takes place inside a six-foot square box while the user wears an Oculus Rift headset. Once in the program, users are assailed by cold as they march across the desolate battlefield of Vimy, the ground shaking beneath them as artillery is fired off. The entire scenario, when complete, will run five minutes and feature simulations that include climbing a ladder out of a ditch and putting on a gas mask.

SimWave hopes to have its booth installed in museums across Canada in 2017, the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge.

Caithness doesn’t believe VR stops at historical re-enactments. Whether it’s exploring the moon, watching a sports game or being treated by a doctor, she says the industry is set to explode.

And speaking of the health sector, the Ottawa Hospital has been taking advantage of VR for years in its Rehabilitation Virtual Reality Lab.

Known as CAREN, short for Computer-Assisted Rehabilitation Environment, the lab is not a headset but rather a mobile platform topped by a treadmill set in front of a wrap-around wide screen with 12 surrounding infrared cameras to track movements as small as two millimetres.

This is definitely not your grandpa’s rehab facility.

“How we think of VR is that we’re changing the sensory inputs,” says Courtney Bridgewater, the VR lab’s operator, “so that we will go from the bottom up and rebuild their brains so they can go in the real world and function.”

This includes helping patients with everything from concussions to spinal injuries.

The patient is fastened to a harness and then experiences one of the simulations either provided with the rig or created in house by engineers like Bridgewater. The simulations vary, with some examples including a rickety bridge and a busy bus, the platform speeding up and tilting as necessary to match what’s happening on the screen.

“The idea of any sort of rehab is you are trying to create a change in the brain so that people can relearn whatever function they’ve lost,” says Bridgewater.

That allows for simulated environments the patient otherwise couldn’t experience in a safe and monitored space, she says, adding this leads to faster recovery times.

But that’s not to say that CAREN is perfect.

“It’s not really plug-and-play,” says Bridgewater. “That’s why they hired an engineer. Because sometimes stuff just doesn’t work. In some ways it’s very intuitive, and in some ways it’s not. There are bugs,” she adds with a laugh and a nod, so as to say those bugs aren’t uncommon.

She is also doubtful of how effective VR will be in the rehabilitation sector of health, since each patient’s case is unique, requiring modifications in the software for each person.

“The cookie cutter, user-friendly stuff, is not the (right stuff) to really get the benefit. There’s a human component that really needs to be in there … for VR to treat patients,” she says.

While she does allow that as more developers get their hands on the tech more apps will be developed, she says it will be difficult to produce mass-market, user-friendly VR for rehab use.

CAREN itself isn’t exactly cheap. It carries a price tag of about $1.5 million to $2 million, depending on the services, parts, labour and other add-ons that are purchased with the machine.

Another potential obstacle for VR is the focus on hardware.

“One of the big issues facing VR right now is the hardware side of the industry is exploding,” Caithness says, “but the content for that hardware, that’s where we need to go. We need more people making content … that people can use.”

Still, virtual reality technology had a strong presence at the most recent Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, where some even dubbed it the year of VR.

As with any new technology, there’s always the chance it won’t catch on as expected (the augmented reality Google Glass, for example), but with VR, the opportunities seem endless.

Whether you’re training for combat or surgery, watching a live concert or travelling back in time, VR seems like it might be one of the next groundbreaking techs of our generation.