I used to think virtual reality (VR) was a silly endeavor of the late 20th century. As a kid, I recall shooting at two-dimensional 32-bit flying aliens as the heavy headset kept sliding off my head. Even then, in the 1990s, I viewed VR as a sad excuse for a game experience. Gamers were better off avoiding the hassle of these clunky devices that did nothing but disappoint with their terrible graphics and uncomfortable gear. As much as I loved the idea of an immersive experience, the execution never impressed me.
When I noticed a resurgence of VR technology a few years ago, I warned people of my disappointment as a kid. “It’s probably going to be a dud,” I used to say. My preconceived notions of VR just couldn’t allow me to see the technology’s potential. So when the company I work for began investing in VR technology for public health, I was skeptical. It wasn’t until a colleague of mine explained the potential of VR that it began to click. VR could be used to deliver messages for health education, simulate workouts, reduce pain, and train public health professionals on food safety.
I didn’t become a true believer in the value of VR until I took part in the experience myself at one of Facebook’s events in New York City promoting Oculus Rift, a VR headset serving as Facebook’s effort to reboot VR. When I put on the Oculus, I felt like I had been transported to gorgeous places around the world. The experience took me on a river boat in Vietnam, an elephant sanctuary in India, Lebron James’ training facility, and outer space. The interactive nature was still a bit awkward, but the visuals were pretty impressive.
Today many people are pursuing the potential of VR, including urban planners. Last year I learned about North Carolina State University’s VisionDome, an “immersive, multi-user, single projection Virtual Reality environment” that doesn’t use goggles or any other devices. The College of Design is using the VisionDome to translate landscape architecture, urban planning, and engineering designs into an experience that the client can envision.
Other urban planning VR projects are used for community engagement to immerse the public in designs that might affect the spaces they inhabit. Smart Favela, for example, is an award-winning app that visualizes redevelopment of favelas (slums) in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and shows it to the community for feedback. Unlike traditional 3D renderings, the virtual creation of the favelas allows people to interact with the city to assess its transportation, infrastructures, and water and sanitation services. Though it is not true VR with goggles–users see the virtual world on their phone–the app is a prototype that is building a virtual world for an immersive experience eventually.
Over at the MIT Media Lab, researchers are developing “sensor networks that document ecological processes and allow people to experience the data at different spatial and temporal scales” through a responsive environment. What this means is that you’re able to enter a 600-acre virtual wetland and witness how curated environmental data like climate and soil conditions affect the wetland’s ecosystem. This has implications for the way we respond to changes in the environment and restore natural landscapes. MIT is also using virtual and augmented reality1 to allow designers, architects, and engineers to work in real time inside virtual reality through a speech-driven artificial intelligence tool. They’re able to create urban planning projects within simulated worlds and modify the designs while elements of the world are created in real time.
I should have noticed years ago that virtual reality isn’t what it used to be. It’s no longer an expanse of clunky renderings of mansions or poorly designed mystical creatures. It’s so much better. It’s exciting and it has the potential to change how we interact with and improve our environments.
1 Augmented reality allows people to interact with virtual elements in the real world, whereas virtual reality allows people to interact in a virtually created world.
About the Author: Karla Jimenez-Magdaleno is a dual master’s student at UNC’s Department of City and Regional Planning and School of Public Health. Her academic interests are in land use and health behavior. When she’s not exploring new food joints, she is obsessing over the NBA. Prior to UNC, Karla was a public health research analyst at RTI International and a radio producer at WNCU 90.7 FM Jazz.