An interview with Dr. Cristina Portalés and Dr. Marcos Fernández regarding the booming popularity and future of virtual and augmented reality

The Diminishing Difference Between the Real and Virtual Worlds

By Colby Conway on May 16, 2017
Head TransplantImage of an e-learning game for driving safety awareness. (Image belongs to the Institute of Robotics and Information and Communication Technologies (IRTIC) of the Universitat de València)
The division between reality and the virtual world continues to become less and less distinct. Virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) headsets, devices and games continue to gain popularity, likely because of the jaw-dropping visuals and unique levels of user engagement. Pokémon GO enamored millions, quickly becoming a breakthrough game developed around augmented reality. Professional sports teams, including the Dallas Cowboys and Arizona Cardinals, began incorporating virtual reality devices as training tools. The technology is impressive and the future is bright for this field, just ask two IGI Global editors.

Dr. Cristina Portalés, a senior researcher at the Institute of Robotics and Information and Communication Technologies at Universitat de València in Spain, and Marcos Fernández, a professor in the computer science department at the Universitat de Valencia, are co-editors-in-chief of IGI Global’s International Journal of Virtual and Augmented Reality (IJVAR). Both experts recently took time out of their busy schedules to collaborate with IGI Global about the booming interest in virtual and augmented reality.
What is the difference between virtual reality and augmented reality?

PORTALÉS: One of the main differences between VR and AR is that the second has a spatial relationship with the real world, and thus users need to physically be in those locations where the augmented content is embedded. However, in VR, users might interact with the digital content remotely, almost from everywhere. This might be seen as an advantage of VR as, for instance, users with reduced mobility can access digital content that refers to remote places from home (e.g. they might visit virtual museums from their laptops provided that they have internet connection). However, the reference to the real world that brings the AR technology is also important, as this gives an extra dimension to the virtual content that enhances the real world instead of replacing it.

VR and AR systems are a hot topic among consumers. What other kinds of data can be implemented into VR and AR systems moving forward?

PORTALÉS: Though augmented and virtual reality have a high visual component, other kinds of data can be integrated in the virtual or augmented worlds and then be reproduced by computers, thus creating a variety of contents - multi-modal contents - that can be reached and managed by end users. Indeed, interaction is in the basis of both VR and AR technologies, as they are defined per se as interactive technologies. The proliferation of affordable sensors (such as Kinect) and displays (such as AR glasses) are opening new avenues for the digital data interaction. Interaction is no longer restricted to the traditional mouse and keyboard, but opened to many other options that involve a huge range of stimuli: speech, gestural, facial, tactile, etc.

Some health risks associated with VR headsets are cybersickness, anxiety and eyestrain. Do the benefits outweigh these negatives?

FERNÁNDEZ: There are some health risks associated with the use of VR headsets, which might be more or less negative for different users. In these regards, in fully immersive virtual worlds, where at least visual and sonic stimuli of the real world are completely suppressed and replaced by synthetic ones, the use of VR headsets in combination with quick head movements is commonly perceived to be too cumbersome for many users, and thus the benefits that such kind of devices bring to provide immersion in the virtual world are reduced. Additionally, VR headsets have to be carried by users, are somehow perceived as non-natural, and this might be an additional disadvantage. However, nowadays there is a huge variety of displays where VR can be reproduced, including desktop computers, big screens, tablets or smartphones. Virtual worlds reproduced in such devices are sometimes referred as semi-immersive VR, but the truth is that many users would prefer these display options to the VR headsets, especially if they need to perform a certain task in the virtual world for a long period of time. In these cases, other strategies (e.g. gaming) can be used in order to engage users, making them focus on the virtual content and thus believe that they are immersed in the synthetic world, a kind of “mental” immersion. Still, VR headsets are promising for many VR applications and it is great that many commercial solutions are arising, which are affordable to the wide public.

Head TransplantAn AR application simulating fire and a fire extinguisher. (Image belongs to the Institute of Robotics and Information and Communication Technologies (IRTIC) of the Universitat de València)
What are some of the biggest breakthroughs in the field within the past year?

PORTALÉS: Recently, some of the biggest breakthroughs have been mainly related to the AR technology. Differing from VR, in AR it is essential to provide an accurate 3D location of the camera viewpoint in real time, in order to align both virtual and real worlds. Additionally, not only the accuracy matters, but it is also important that the sensors used are affordable, so the AR technology can be broadly available. This is rather challenging, and a variety of sensors have been investigated (e.g. GPS, inertial sensors, acoustic sensors, cameras, etc.). In this sense, the “revolution” started with the proliferation of smartphones, which are devices that, apart from offering increased processing capabilities, integrate a camera and other sensors (accelerometers, magnetometers, etc.), which can be used for location. On the other hand, the camera per se does not give a 3D location, but image processing and computer vision approaches are required in order to obtain such information. In this sense, it has to be mentioned the advancement of Simultaneous Localization And Mapping (SLAM) approaches that, as the name indicates, are able to provide simultaneously a 3D localization and a map of the real world. Both are relevant for AR, as a map of the real world plays an important role for instance in order to deal with occlusions in the augmented scenes.

Can you mention some areas where VR and AR are of interest? What kind of applications can be relevant and why?

FERNÁNDEZ: There is a huge variety of areas where VR and AR applications might play an important role, including engineering, science, health, driving, entertainment or arts. Among the different areas, VR and AR are proved to be very useful for learning and training purposes. For instance, VR simulators devoted to acquire driving skills are convenient for different reasons, namely: safety and risk reduction; costs reduction; greater trial availability; they cause no damage for users; availability of trainers and students; possibility of recreating a variety of situations; possibility of repeating the same tests under the same conditions; ability to evaluate tests objectively; transfer of skills and training. Similarly, AR applications might reproduce virtual content related to the real world, but yet reducing risks associated to full real situations, where the reproduced content might produce some damage to users. For instance, virtual fire can be reproduced in the real environment, without the risks associated to the nature of fire itself, and also reducing costs regarding the extinguishers that users need to use for training purposes. Other applications are related to inspection and maintenance of buildings or industrial artifacts. In these regards, VR can be used for training in a simulated environment, while AR can be used in situ to aid in the inspection and/or maintenance-related tasks, by giving some virtual indications to the workers, also reducing the risks of missing or misleading some important steps.

What lies ahead for virtual and augmented reality?

PORTALÉS: We might see more advancements regarding these approaches, and also in the smartphone devices that perhaps integrate depth cameras. From a research point of view, other aspects might be addressed in the coming years for both VR and AR technologies. For instance, considering the variety of new sensors and displays technologies dealing with different kind of stimuli, issues regarding the level of immersion, user engagement or satisfaction may have to be re-investigated. It will be also interesting to see how these technologies can be integrated as part of social media (e.g. in Facebook) and thus forming part of the daily human relationships.
A sincere thanks to Dr. Cristina Portalés and Dr. Marcos Fernández for taking time to speak with IGI Global and for sharing their thoughts about virtual and augmented reality. Please take a moment to view the International Journal of Virtual and Augmented Reality.
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Thanks for reading and comment on our overview.Education is another field that can greatly benefit from the AR and VR technologies, and there are many applications build for this purpose, including serious games. In this regards, we have experience in working with children with ASD (Autism Spectral Disorder) by means of AR and VR. In this case, we use the capabilities that these technologies bring in order to aid in the education of such children with special needs. For instance, we have built an AR-based mirror where children can identify their own body, with the help of pictograms and avatars that fit into the image of their body.
Cristina Portalés Ricart in response to Raphael Raphael(Show comment)6 years ago
Our experience in learning and training is diverse, both with AR and VR technologies, and also with applications that combine both interaction paradigms. We have mainly worked for the civil engineering and related fields, but also for driving simulations and for the touristic and cultural heritage sectors. For instance, regarding to learning new knowledge within a visit to a museum, we have used AR to enhance some parts of the museum, giving to visitors extra information in a variety of forms (images, 3D animations, sound, etc.). Regarding to training, users can acquire driving skills in driving simulators with motion platforms that simulate the movements of a vehicle, while the virtual world might simulate different road and environmental conditions.
Cristina Portalés Ricart in response to Raphael Raphael(Show comment)6 years ago
ps. there is a mention of 'learning and training'. Can you comment more generally on what you see and general educational uses?
Raphael Raphael6 years ago
Thanks for valuable overview. I see that education is not mentioned. Can authors comment on that? Thank you.
Raphael Raphael6 years ago

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