Virtual Reality (VR) and science are converging and you can learn about VR technologies at Salford University 

Over this weekend (21-22 October) Salford University has created a focused space, #GameLab, for scientists and tech mavens to exhibit their work. Here we witnessed the unique convergence point between ‘future media’ and scientific research, much of it using VR (virtual reality) and AR (augmented reality). For ease of communication what we refer to in this piece will be called VR as there is plenty of overlap between the two spheres.

VR is characterised by the use of headsets, ‘range’ boxes (as far as the VR will let you roam), and handheld devices (like the Microsoft-acer Mixed Reality cross-headset controllers) that enable you to move freely in your newly acquired ‘virtual world’. Populated initially by companies like Oculus VR the VR market is becoming increasingly crowded and more affordable. Big players like Samsung  have collaborated with Oculus to create an augmented mobile device, Google Cardboard has been around a while so you can ‘hack’ your handset. Most recently Microsoft burst in with Hololens (of which we’ve been on the mailing list for a good two years) bringing new, holographic VR world to us the consumer. It’s mind boggling but what exactly can you do with it?

What does VR in science look like?

Visually it’s a kaleidoscope, VR can encompass anything from games to virtual working environments but they all have two things in common: consolidated data to simulate real or virtual environments with scientific principles and goals at their core. Below is an image from yesterday, what you see from the nearest TV is an example image the wearer of the VR device could be seeing.

Chenobyl

Image Courtesy of Nick Beresford (#VRChernobyl)

Above is ‘VR Chernobyl’ and it is a groundbreaking study in the relatively new world of Chernobyl radiation ecology. Radiation ecology is the study of the effects of radiation on the environment and organisms that exist within it. Chernobyl has provided a unique playground for ecologists to measure the effects of ‘high baseline’ radiation dosage, everyday radiation we experience is around 620 millirem per year. In Chernobyl it’s 59 times that per year!

That’s huge isn’t it? So, you can’t expect ecologists to stay in the very ‘high dosage’ zones for long and remain healthy. Scientifically, VR enables people to visually study a hostile ecological environment without the need for repeated exposure to radiation. Chernobyl was locked down under a 1,000 square mile exclusion zone on the 27th April 1986 after the explosion of it’s nuclear reactor following experimental testing. Chernobyl VR is an example of the ‘future now’ and the way new realities can work within science, we’ll go into more detail about it in another article. The work has been carried out by Dr Mike Wood and Professor Nick Beresford of Salford University.

Another benchmark  example of the use of VR in science #GameLab has been the use of the KatWalk VR omnidirectional treadmill. No, no, it’s not just a very expensive treadmill it does have more use than that. However, the initial idea was boosted by a hugely successful kickstarter campaign resulting in manufacture and delivery in April 2016. The initial remit was just make first-person RPG gaming more immersive (see video)!

Now, it’s developed further from its initial gaming purpose and gained a ‘treadmill’ function that uses pressure sensors to take micro-analysis of gait and knee function. Ergonomic analysis is very useful for people with gait problems, are disabled but need to find a holistic way of gaining and maintaining muscle tone etc. and 100% immersive when coupled with a VR headset. Below you can see Katwalk VR in use (21/10/17).

Beyond that, Elder and Professor David Roberts, an expert in telepresence (the use of virtual technology in machinery/participation in ‘events’) have developed a system that could immersively reduce the symptoms of chronic loneliness and the onslaught of mental illness and diseases like dementia. Illnesses which could benefit from VR stimulation i.e. the virtual presence of someone.

Lastly, Salford University have had VR Manchester hosting talks and ‘un-conferences’ over the weekend. VR has a large and growing community of individuals and companies who are invested in this new and fast developing sector of industry and digital technology and most importantly pushing it through to the next frontier. VR Manchester regularly host talks and meet-ups throughout the year if you fancy checking it out and meeting new people.

VRSch

It doesn’t matter if you’ve never tried VR before VR has such a huge wealth of applications in science from mental health, gaming to physical exercise. Next time you get the opportunity to give VR technology a whirl (@scicommsalford or anywhere else) take the time jump into new worlds you’ve never quite experienced before. Where scientists, coders & many more work towards augmenting reality so you can better understand yourself and the environment you live in. 

#GameLab @salfordscience

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