The big challenges in the field of virtual reality are developing better tracking systems, finding more natural ways to allow users to interact within a virtual environment and decreasing the time it takes to build virtual spaces. While there are a few tracking system companies that have been around since the earliest days of virtual reality, most companies are small and don’t last very long. Likewise, there aren’t many companies that are working on input devices specifically for VR applications. Most VR developers have to rely on and adapt technology originally meant for another discipline, and they have to hope that the company producing the technology stays in business. As for creating virtual worlds, it can take a long time to create a convincing virtual environment - the more realistic the environment, the longer it takes to make it. It could take a team of programmers more than a year to duplicate a real room accurately in virtual space.
Another challenge for VE system developers is creating a system that avoids bad ergonomics. Many systems rely on hardware that encumbers a user or limits his options through physical tethers. Without well-designed hardware, a user could have trouble with his sense of balance or inertia with a decrease in the sense of telepresence, or he could experience cybersickness, with symptoms that can include disorientation and nausea. Not all users seem to be at risk for cybersickness -- some people can explore a virtual environment for hours with no ill effects, while others may feel queasy after just a few minutes.
Some psychologists are concerned that immersion in virtual environments could psychologically affect a user. They suggest that VE systems that place a user in violent situations, particularly as the perpetuator of violence, could result in the user becoming desensitized. In effect, there’s a fear that VE entertainment systems could breed a generation of sociopaths. Others aren’t as worried about desensitization, but do warn that convincing VE experiences could lead to a kind of cyber addiction. There have been several news stories of gamers neglecting their real lives for their online, in-game presence. Engaging virtual environments could potentially be more addictive.
Another emerging concern involves criminal acts. In the virtual world, defining acts such as murder or sex crimes has been problematic. At what point can authorities charge a person with a real crime for actions within a virtual environment? Studies indicate that people can have real physical and emotional reactions to stimuli within a virtual environment, and so it’s quite possible that a victim of a virtual attack could feel real emotional trauma. Can the attacker be punished for causing real-life distress? We don’t yet have answers to these questions.
In the next section, we’ll look at the history of virtual reality.