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Virtual reality opening entertainment, research possibilities

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Posted at 11:38 PM, Oct 05, 2016
and last updated 2016-10-05 23:38:13-04

Virtual reality is still a new concept for many consumers, even with several headsets already on the market.

By the end of the year, that could change.

On Oct. 13, Sony launches Playstation VR, a new gaming platform turning any Playstation 4 console into a virtual reality portal. With 40 million users already using PS4, the launch may push virtual reality into the mainstream.

Researchers say eventually, virtual reality and other technologies will change our world forever.

“Look, you are going to a different world. A completely different world,” said Dr. Karl Steiner, VP of research at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. “You put your headset on, you’re in the forest. You could be on a foreign plant or you could be in a battlefield.”

Steiner and fellow university researchers have been busy studying the technology. At UMBC, they are already programming VR simulations and studying the brainwaves of the “players” who use them.

Also, thanks to a grant, the university installed a series of giant, high-resolution panels that can display complex 3D visualizations.

 With help from 3D glasses and motion sensors, researchers hope that doctors will soon be immersed by digital models of the brain or the human genome to diagnose patients like never before.

Steiner says the possibilities of VR are endless: “A wind farm for instance, or how blood flows through a human body,” he says, “or how car traffic might be on I-95, which we’ll never understand."

As virtual reality begins to enter the living room, research is split on how wearing the technology will affect users.

The technology is too new to gauge long-term effects, but short-term discomfort has been widely reported.

“In this type of environment, your brain thinks your body is moving but your body is not actually moving,” Dr. Jian Chen said.

“After a while, you sort of have to stop, take the goggles off and get your bearing back,” Steiner said. “There is some disorientation.”

Motion sickness, nausea and blurred vision have been common complaints among many early adopters. Ahead of the launch of Playstation VR, Sony is discouraging anyone under the age of 12 from using the device, according to on-screen warnings.

Other manufacturers urge taking frequent breaks when using VR headsets.

Researchers say discomfort may be one reason another new technology, augmented reality, or AR, may end up being more popular in the end. It doesn’t completely transport you to a new world, but allows users to alter the real world with a digital device.

If you’ve ever seen someone catch Pokemon on their phone, then you’ve already been been introduced to augmented reality.

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“That’s one of the reasons Pokemon is so popular right now,” said UMBC researcher Nilanjan Banerjee, “You can go out there and meet with people.”

But digitizing the real world also has applications outside of gaming.

“If you’re in a home environment, you’re still seeing your house but all the appliances would be overlaid with controls that are useful for you,” Banerjee said.

While several tech companies are working on Augmented Reality devices, Virtual Reality alone is expected to boom into a 120 billion dollar business by 2020.

Only time will how the immersive technology impacts the real life of its users.

“The next step is to make sure that we don’t lose a sense of reality. I see it in some of our kids that now come to college. They’ve literally grown up on their handheld devices,” Steiner said. “Everything in moderation I think is the key mode there.”

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