Virtual Reality (VR) is all about making you intensely feel alternate forms of reality through a simulated environment. It’s being widely used in combat training, pilot training and educational purposes.
We caught up with Prof Samir Mukherjee, who is a leading expert in this field and is also responsible for the Department of Emerging Technology at Maulana Abul Kalam Azad University of Technology (MAKAUT), West Bengal, to discuss the scope in VR and its massive potential.
Edugraph: What is VR and how does it capture imagination?
Samir Mukherjee: It’s the use of computer technology to create a simulated environment. Unlike traditional user interfaces, VR places the user inside an experience — it makes them immersed and enable them to interact with 3D worlds. By simulating vision, hearing, touch and smell, the computer gets transformed into a gatekeeper to this artificial world. The only limits to near-real VR experiences are a limited availability of content, cheap computing power, and our own imagination.
What exactly is the technology employed by VR?
SM: VR employs a combination of existing technologies like multimedia, 360 photography and 3D graphics. Though VR is often confused for one of these techniques, it’s actually a complex and measured arrangement of all these methods and then some.
What’s the difference between VR and Augmented Reality (AR)?
SM: AR simulates artificial objects in the real environment, while VR creates an artificial environment to inhabit. In AR, the computer uses sensors and algorithms to determine the camera’s position and orientation. AR technology then renders the 3D graphics as they would appear from the viewpoint of the camera, superimposing the computer-generated images over the user’s view of the real world.
In VR, the computer uses similar sensors and algorithms. However, rather than locating a real camera within a physical environment, the position of the user’s eyes here is located within the simulated environment. If the user’s head turns, the graphics change accordingly. And that’s why VR technology creates a convincing interactive world for the user.
How does VR differ from other visual media?
SM: VR is recognised by the head-mounted display (HMD). The display technology used here is the primary difference between VR and all other traditional visual media. For instance, using the CAVE automatic virtual environments, the content can be projected onto screens that encompass entire rooms, which makes it an incredible pedagogical and research tool. However, commercial and everyday use of VR tech has a long way to go.
Can you tell us something about the importance of audio in VR?
SM: What we understand and process is influenced or caused by a combined action of our sensory systems. For VR to be adequately convincing, both audio and visual aspects are required. Our understanding of space and balance stems from a combined use of our eyes and ears. Therefore, environmental sounds and spatial attributes must be accurately reproduced for VR to be genuinely immersive and spatial.
What kind of academic background does one need to study VR?
SM: No specific academic background is needed. But you need an artistic acumen and storytelling capability to become successful in this field. CAD, photography, videography and animation are also needed to nurture a VR project. To work independently, you need to be well-versed in different programming languages like C++, C#, Unreal and Unity.
VR is mostly associated with sci-fi movies. Other than that, what are the emerging areas where virtual reality techniques are being applied?
SM: VR has immense potential in our real, non-entertainment world and has excellent pedagogical applications — especially in STEM, where labs can be easily reproduced. VR is useful for historical and archaeological restoration, cultural and heritage preservation. For instance, we created a VR walkthrough of Bari Kothi in Murshidabad. VR can also be used for military and aviation training.
Other than these, VR has a lot of scope in multiple branches of medicine, especially psychotherapy for pain and PTSD, paediatrics and surgery. With its capacity for realistic visualisations, VR is of great use in media, fashion, sports, automobile, and urban construction and planning. It is also used extensively for telecommunications, meetings and conferences.
What is the career scope of VR in India and abroad?
SM: There is plenty of opportunities in VR projects, specifically in the US and Europe. However, the education sector of our country is reluctant to adopt this technology and so we are also missing out on a world of possibilities. However, some universities like MAKAUT are warming up to this whole universe of opportunities and experiences.
VR is expected to multiply manifold in the next two years, according to several projections, primarily because technologies are crucial to all digital transformation plans. VR is on its way to become a part of our everyday lives as cell phones.- Samir Mukherjee
Can you please tell us something about your areas of interest in this field?
SM: Outside India, VR is already as commonplace in the educational curriculum as mathematics or history. There is incredible research scope in this field. As a lifelong educator, my interest too is along these lines — researching this new technology and its applications as well as educating people, especially younger generations, in and about VR. In fact, I have been personally involved in developing a VR lab for engineering students in Kolkata.
I am already helping out young entrepreneurs, startups and students to grow in this field. I am also acting as chief mentor in VR AR Academia, Salt Lake, Kolkata, which is involved in different types of projects in India and abroad.
What MAKAUT is doing to trigger interest in the area of VR? What are some of the research projects on VR that you are running at MAKAUT?
SM: MAKAUT is probably the first university in the eastern region to work with VR. We are fortunate to have a very dynamic vice-chancellor. One interesting research project we are working on at MAKAUT is essentially the transformation of the traditional teaching-learning exercise into an experiential one within the virtual space, which will be very beneficial for students in future.
What do you think is the future of VR?
SM: VR has the highest projected potential for growth. AR/VR is expected to multiply manifold in the next two years, according to several projections, primarily because technologies are crucial to all digital transformation plans. It is expected that the expenditure in emerging tech will easily exceed the consumer sector. VR is on its way to become a part of our everyday lives as cell phones.
Tech Giants are already working to improve this emerging area and make it seamless. In fact, there is an actual possibility of the integration of VR and AI. The pandemic has accelerated our need to connect easily and effectively over large distances. So, with better and more powerful processors, improved infrastructure and easier accessibility, we’ll experience the true power of VR.