Virtual Reality gets real

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Simulation tech has many applications, crowd hears

Ever wanted to ride up a mountain while indoors?

Edmonton-area residents got to do that last week as part of a free forum on virtual reality (VR) technology.

About 70 people came to the Telus World of Science in Edmonton last Friday for a free forum on virtual reality organized by the Ernest C. Manning Awards Foundation. The forum was meant to promote the Manning Innovation Awards, which recognize Canadians who create commercially viable innovations.

The foundation chose to make this year’s forum about VR because it has drawn a lot of media attention and interest, especially among youth, said Perry Kinkaide, St. Albert resident and one of the forum’s organizers. VR is an emerging field with applications in medicine, tourism, construction and architecture.

“It seems to be broadening beyond just the ‘wow’ factor of entertainment.”

The forum featured a number of Edmonton-area experts who had developed virtual or augmented reality products that were on or soon to go on the market.

Robert Henderson, 10, had a huge grin on his face as he pedalled a million miles an hour on the VR Bike – a device invented by the University of Alberta’s Advanced Man-Machine Interface Lab that uses a bike, an iPhone, a screen and rollers to let users simulate a ride up a mountain road.

“You feel the road, you feel like you’re going up that mountain,” Henderson said – the screen shifts as you pedal and steer, and the rollers change the resistance to match your terrain.

“It’s like you can go cycling in the safety of your home without any bears attacking.”

VR rebooted

VR technology has been around for decades, but other than a few ill-fated attempts in the 1990s (e.g. the Nintendo Virtual Boy), it hasn’t really caught on commercially.

What’s changed today is its cost and accessibility, said Martin Ferguson-Pell, professor of rehabilitation medicine at the U of A and speaker at the forum. Whereas you used to need an expensive computer and a clunky helmet to do VR, all you need now is some cardboard and a smartphone. (Google Cardboard uses small lenses and a cardboard holder to convert a smartphone into a VR viewer.)

“For $15 you can buy a headset, and when you can do that, you have a profound effect on democratizing education,” Ferguson-Pell said.

VR could soon be used to train doctors to do surgery just as it’s currently used to train pilots in flight simulators, Kinkaide said.

“Ron Hodgson talks about the challenge they have in finding mechanics that are properly trained,” he continued, referring to the St. Albert car retailer. VR simulators would let them train mechanics on site.

Teachers in Singapore and the U.K. are using VR apps to teach subjects such as biology, and have noticed significant gains in student interest and retention, Ferguson-Pell noted.

Similar to VR is AR, or augmented reality, which is where computer graphics are overlaid over real-world sights using a smartphone or VR goggles. Guests at the forum could scan an AR-enhanced diagram of a heart with their phones to see it transform into a 3D image, for example.

AR has many potential applications. British engineers can now film a street using an AR-enabled iPad and see the cables buried underneath it on screen, noted Ferguson-Pell. Ikea now uses AR in some of its catalogues, letting readers scan items with their phones, point their phones where they want the item to go, and see a scaled image of it in that space.

Ferguson-Pell said VR hasn’t taken off in earnest yet in part because cheap VR technology is still so new; Google Cardboard is barely a year old. The VR industry has also yet to assemble the teams of artists, programmers and subject-matter experts needed to create VR apps.

“It’s a wonderful opportunity for Edmonton to lead in this area,” he said, adding that he hoped to see teams of app developers set up shop here.

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Kevin Ma

Kevin Ma joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2006. He writes about Sturgeon County, education, the environment, agriculture, science and aboriginal affairs. He also contributes features, photographs and video.