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Fans of Star Trek have long marveled at the technological innovations spawned from the imaginations of its creators—from warp drives that bend space to transporters beaming individuals from point A to B. Few of these speculative innovations inspired more wonder than the “holodeck,” a room that creates a simulated sensory experience nearly indistinguishable from reality, where crew members can train, study, or engage in recreation within the space’s artificial environments.

The border between science fiction and fact can be fluid, as proven by the proliferation of virtual reality (VR) technology in recent years, providing an immersive experience like that promised by the fictional holodeck. When thinking about VR in the modern sense, one usually envisions a person fitted with a head-mounted display (HMD) that delivers visual stimuli directly to the eyes, with movement and views controlled by directional sensors in the HMD and hand controllers.

While this can certainly deliver an immersive experience, HMD systems have their limitations. HMDs and controllers are often tethered via cables to the high-end computers needed to generate realistic imagery. This can limit the user’s ability to move and interact naturally in a virtual environment. A variation is something much closer to the holodeck of science fiction—a room in which a virtual environment is projected onto walls rather than displayed on a headset screen. This is the world of projection VR.

Virtual reality innovators like WorldViz are taking projection VR to the next level by creating highly-customizable virtual environments that can be scaled and adapted to a variety of tasks. One application in which VR projection rooms are being used is to train emergency medical technicians (EMT) and other first responders in realistic environments, such as on a virtual roadside. Trainees can move about performing first aid as cars seem to rush by, safe from real traffic hazards.

Outside of training and educational applications, projection VR and VR rooms have proven to be affective in a variety of research studies. These technologies have been used in machine learning and behavioral studies focusing on children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD). In such applications, HMD systems may cause motion sickness or discomfort for the participants with ASD. Projection rooms, however result in no significant negative impacts on the participants’ comfort while still providing an immersive experience.

VR Driver StudyAs mentioned, projection VR experiences allow for additional technologies to be introduced seamlessly into the virtual experience. A 2020 study of driver gaze habits integrated driving environments created in Vizard 5.0 and projected on a screen with eye tracking to determine how drivers process visual information behind the wheel. Participants were able to interact with real driving controls while their “vehicle” moved through the virtual environment as they focused on visual cues.

VR projection rooms are no longer restricted to fictional flights of fancy. Their real world use is limited only by the imaginations of those applying these potent tools in the classroom and research lab.

For more information on how projection VR can benefit research, education, and training, join a webinar hosted by BIOPAC as we explore this virtual frontier where science fiction becomes science reality.

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