How Virtual Windows Work


A virtual window installation by Sky Factory in an MRI suite.
A virtual window installation by Sky Factory in an MRI suite.
© The Sky Factory, L.C.

Rooms without windows, especially in places like hospitals and offices, can be drab and downright depressing. Even your windowed home or office might have an unenviable view of nearby buildings. Sometimes the best you can do is bring in plants, hang posters or take a walk to the nearest window or exit to get a break from the same boring everyday walls and take in a view of nature.

But now, as one might expect, there is a more high tech solution. With virtual windows, you can gaze out onto the Golden Gate Bridge, the Canadian Rockies or even an underwater seascape from the comfort of your own couch or office chair. They can be used in a room with a dull view, or an interior room with no real windows at all.

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A virtual window is something that resembles a window, but through which you are viewing an artificially created scene rather than the actual outside world. Some even incorporate sound. There are different types to choose from depending upon how much variety and realism you want out of your scenery, and, of course, your budget. They can be faux windows or mock skylights, and can include only one pane or many. In any case, they're illusions to make you feel better about your surroundings, and through them you can get a refreshing view of nature or some other part of the world -- even outer space.

Although a picture or painting on a wall could in some ways be considered do the same job, there's a bit more to virtual windows in most cases. They range from still images to videos to scenes that shift based on your movement.

Still Image Virtual Windows

Faux windows can be made using posters, decals, paintings and murals, but a slightly more high-tech variety involves backlighting behind a nature scene printed onto a semi-transparent material. These virtual windows can be mounted or recessed into the wall, and are often surrounded by a window frame and overlaid with crossbars that simulate panes to complete the illusion that you are looking out a real window. Double-sided versions that can be viewed from two rooms and ceiling-mounted skylights are available, too.

Companies like Therapeutic Environmental SolutionS (TESS) and Joey Fischer's VisualTherapy custom build virtual skylights and windows specifically for the purpose of creating relaxing atmospheres in medical facilities, where the waiting areas and treatment rooms are often windowless and clinical in appearance. They give patients and other occupants something to look at besides bare walls or medical equipment in what can be a stressful environment.

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Sky Factory makes several lines of virtual windows and skylights for homes or businesses, including medical clientele. Their static-image offerings consist of high-resolution transparent images and custom-built window and skylight frames lit by either T5 fluorescent backlighting or LED edge lighting for even illumination. They also offer image tiles that can be placed into standard ceiling grids and lit by ambient or custom front lighting.

The realistic images and lighting can give the illusion of a window at first glance, but with this variety, the scenery never changes unless you switch out the photo, which doesn't make for the most realistic window experience. In real life, clouds and birds move across the sky and leaves and other foliage flutter in the wind. Read on to find out about virtual windows that get a step closer to realism.

Virtual Windows That Incorporate Video

While many installations of virtual windows are in hospitals or other professional settings, they can bring the outside into private residences as well.
While many installations of virtual windows are in hospitals or other professional settings, they can bring the outside into private residences as well.
© The Sky Factory, L.C.

The moving variety of virtual windows can include either projected video or video displayed on high-definition television sets.

The projection variety exists more in the realm of do-it-yourselfers and academic researchers, at least at present. One industrious person has demonstrated setting up a bright, wide-angle projector on a balcony, connecting it to a computer and beaming various views through white curtains to liven up his indoor environment, including city, nature, underwater and space scenes, and even scary silhouettes of people [sources: Henry, Kawamoto]. And in a study dubbed the Open Window project, researchers set up projectors, computers and speakers to project still and moving artwork and nature scenes (with accompanying audio) onto the walls of rooms housing patients undergoing stem cell transplantation [sources: Hegarty, McCabe]. Both of these lacked the artifice of a window frame.

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But video virtual windows are also already on the market. They mainly consist of high-definition televisions turned to portrait orientation, with window frames (and sometimes crossbars or shutters) to more closely mimic standard windows. Like their static brethren, they can be hung or recessed into walls or ceilings as windows or skylights. They can even be made up of multiple monitors as individual panes.

Once again, Sky Factory offers a variety of units that include one or more 40- to 46-inch (101.6- to 116.8-centimeter) 1080p high-definition LED edge-lit LCD monitors. They include window and mounting fixtures, a hard-drive based video playback unit (VPU) with around 8 hours of high-definition (either 1080p or UltraHD resolution) nature content and a wall mounted control panel to play, stop, pause and switch between scenes. Some models also include micro-class satellite speakers to provide audio. The available nature footage is shot on either the RED One 4K or RED Epic 5K cameras, which have also been used to shoot theatrically released films, and they include a variety of lake, mountain, sky, ocean, river and other natural landscapes, as well as a balloon festival and an aquarium scene. The available videos differ for each model. The company will custom build and install the units, and even shoot custom footage in some cases. The prices vary, but the basic systems run in the thousands of dollars.

Even very high-resolution video windows are missing one important element of realism. As you move, what you see out of a real window shifts, which is not the case with most static images or video footage. But there is a newer type of virtual window that takes this into account.

Winscape Takes the Virtual Window a Step Further

Winscape started as a home project by Ryan Hoagland. He provides the build information for his project online, as well as software and scenery videos [source: Winscape]. The latest demo version consists of two 46-inch (118.8-centimeter) Panasonic TC-P46G10 plasma monitors and an Apple Macintosh Pro running the custom-coded Winscape software, as well as an Xbox Kinect (model 1414) to track a person's position relative to the screens. With older versions, the user had to wear a clunky infrared (IR) necklace that communicated with a modified Wiimote for tracking, but with the Kinect, the unit works device-free.

This tracking makes all the difference, because with an actual window, the scenery changes as you move about the room. The Winscape software mimics this effect. If you move to the left, you can see more of what's to the right in the view, and if you move up, you can see more of the image below, and so on. The displayed scenery will also adjust accordingly when you move further away from or closer to the virtual windows. The Winscape software uses QuickTime and OpenGL to render the necessary images for the screens. The Kinect can track multiple people, but the view will only change in relation to the person moving closest to the window.

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If you already have a display or two, the right Kinect and a Macintosh running Snow Leopard 10.6, Lion 10.7 or Mountain Lion 10.8 OS, you can throw your own system together using the Winscape software and some additional equipment to mount, connect and power everything. The software is free to try, but after 30 days, you will get reminders to buy a license, which is $34.95 as of spring 2014. The current software can support up to six monitors, provided your Mac has two three-output video cards. It even supports 4K-resolution video if your computer can handle it. The site also offers Winscape Marketeer software that allows for features like tracking of random viewers without calibration and timed video overlays, making marketing to passers by viable. The software is Mac-only, and versions for other operating systems don't seem to be in the works.

You can download the Winscape Remote iPhone, iPod Touch or iPad app, which lets you use your mobile device to change scenes, wake the displays up or put them to sleep. You can also control the displays via the OS X software.

Various scenes are available for purchase from Winscape at $19.50 each for 1080p quality, and $60 for the few 4K resolution offerings. They include lots of San Francisco and other California scenes, as well as a few videos shot in Norway, Maui, Canada and Minnesota. You can also make your own if you have a high-resolution camera.

All this equipment can run into the thousands of dollars. As with any virtual window, building it into the wall and adding nice wooden frames will add to the illusion, and that increases the cost and effort still further. But with the inexpensive software, you might be able to experiment with what you already have before you make a heavy monetary commitment.

Virtues of Virtual Windows

Imaging how much more appealing this drab scenario would be with a virtual view of Mount Fuji or Tahiti.
Imaging how much more appealing this drab scenario would be with a virtual view of Mount Fuji or Tahiti.
©Jupiterimages/Thinkstock

Virtual windows may sound like playthings for the rich and famous, or decorations for high-end corporate offices, but they do have some practical uses. We want, and perhaps even need, access to a view of the outside world, and we can't always get the real thing. Research show that people even seem to line their offices with more nature-related decorations to compensate when they lack a real view of the outdoors [source: Farley].

Aside from ventilation and a clue as to the time and weather outside, windows furnish us with light, color and distraction from the static and sometimes boring everyday indoor view. Windows can create energy problems and keep architects and designers from making the most efficient use of space, but being without them often causes a negative psychological response in a building's human occupants, including feelings of tension, isolation and depression [source: Farley]. This can be especially true in places like hospitals, schools and offices, where people tend to be stuck in one spot for long periods of time.

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Access to windows, particularly with visible nature scenery, has a positive impact on work-related stress and employee satisfaction. It has also been demonstrated that window views of trees can aid in surgical recovery times and reduce the amount of painkillers taken by patients [sources: Farley, Ijsselsteijn]. And in one study, lack of windows in an intensive care unit resulted in more than double the number of cases of postoperative delirium, as well as a higher incidence of depression, compared to patients in windowed rooms [source: Farley].

More research needs to be done to determine if these findings hold equally true for the virtual variety of window, but there's already movement in that direction. The Open Window project mentioned earlier involved projecting still and moving artwork, nature scenes and images of personal interest onto the walls of the rooms of patients undergoing stem cell transplants -- a procedure that requires weeks of isolation for the patient in a sterile, windowless room. The experiment resulted in reduced anxiety and depression for patients participating in the project, compared with those without Open Window. Patients stated that the treatment experience was better than they expected it to be and that the "windows" provided distraction and feelings of connection to the outside world. [sources: Hegarty, McCabe].

Lots of medical and other offices are already adopting the still-image virtual windows to improve the view. With enough evidence of benefit, the moving variety might not be far behind.

Displays and other computing equipment are also becoming cheaper and cheaper, so smaller and less expensive virtual windows fit for a cubicle might be in our future. Who doesn't want to pretend their office is underwater?

Author's Note: How Virtual Windows Work

This sounds really cool to me, especially given that I lost my window-side cubicle in an office move recently. And a virtual window or two would have been especially helpful when I worked in a windowless basement office years ago. A Mars landscape, complete with Curiosity wheeling around, would be fun, as would any number of earthly and otherworldly settings. I'd probably change them frequently while looking for a distraction from my normal computer monitor and my cloth-covered cubicle walls. I doubt my office will shell out the big bucks for something this novel, but, smaller, cheaper versions are bound to come out. Until then, I'll have to settle for fun desktop wallpaper landscapes. Or walking to the actual window.

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