We hear about new technological advances every day, from intelligent personal assistants like Apple’s Siri to Tesla’s self-driving cars – and everything in between. Today, smartphones are the epicenter of our digital and physical lives, seeming almost indispensable. But 10 years from now, a new device may take the smartphone’s place. Commercials and videos for virtual reality headsets are becoming more common and widespread. In the coming years, people could have  a device that looks like ordinary eyeglasses but that offers virtual and augmented reality settings. Coming off of recent advancements, humans are on the verge of a virtual reality revolution.

The different types of digital reality

Virtual Reality (VR): Virtual reality is an artificial environment created with software. It completely immerses the user in a new reality. Since it’s presented to the user in such a way that the user suspends belief and accepts their virtual reality as a real environment, it can create worlds that only our imaginations could think up.

Augmented Reality (AR): Augmented reality is the integration of digital information with the user’s environment in real time and space. Unlike virtual reality, which creates an entirely artificial environment, augmented reality utilizes the existing environment and overlays new information, enhancing the real world with digital objects.

Mixed Reality (MR): Also referred to as hybrid reality, mixed reality augments the real world with virtual objects that aim to look as if they are really placed within the world. It lets the user interact with the real world and the virtual environment within the same lapse of space and time.

In the coming years, we will see dramatic increases in the availability, diversity and interest in all categories of digital reality. But Virtual Reality is currently the most mainstream, most powerful and most logical in terms of use and ability, suggesting that it will experience the most rapid rise.

VR’s History

The concept of virtual reality has been around for decades. In the 1950s, a cinematographer named Morton Heilig envisioned a theater experience that would stimulate all of the five senses. In 1960, he built a prototype of this vision and called it the Sensorama. It had a stereoscopic display, fans, odor emitters, stereo speakers, and a moving chair. That same decade, in 1968, Ivan Sutherland invented the first virtual reality and augmented reality head-mounted display (HMD). By the 1990s, movies like The Matrix further explored virtual reality and introduced the technology to popular audiences. Google Street View came out in 2007, Facebook bought  Oculus for two billion dollars in 2014 and Google invested $500 million into Magic Leap in 2016. VR only recently got into the public eye, with 2016 seeing a trio of mainstream headsets launched to the public — the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and PlayStation VR. These three brands helped significantly broaden awareness of VR, offering high visual quality, low latency and impressive motion tracking at a price point low enough for enthusiastic gamers to take advantage of. In the past ten years, innovation in VR, AR and MR has exploded. Current attention and interest in the technologies suggest they will only continue to grow.

VR Therapy: How virtual reality helps people in the real world

Not only does VR have practical and entertainment purposes, but it’s also paving the way for new medical therapies to help people with specific conditions. For instance, 135 million people are affected by low vision. The visual impairment can be age-related or caused by an eye-affecting injury, disorder or disease.

Low vision cannot be corrected by surgery, medicine or glasses, and it severely affects the patient’s ability to complete everyday tasks. In the past, there were no therapies or cures. But products like IrisVision help low vision patients regain their sight via a VR experience. IrisVision is a team led by  Frank Weblin, Neuroscience Professor at the University of California, who works to provide patients with a way to magnify desired objects in the visual scene without losing awareness of the overall environment around them. The user can choose the magnification they wish – along with factors like contrast, ambient level and text options – and perform hand-eye coordination activities ranging from playing the piano to scrambling eggs with relative ease.

Another example of VR medical therapy is how it can fight chronic pain. Medical VR has been shown to stop the brain from processing pain, thereby reducing pain in hospitalized patients. This shortens the length of the patient’s stay in the hospital and lowers the costs of care. Projects like Farm have been created to help distract patients with chronic pain by allowing them to focus on VR worlds. With Farm, patients can escape the four walls of the hospital and swim with whales in the ocean, join helicopter rides over landscapes or play games.

Virtual reality also helps people with traumatic brain injuries recover faster than patients who do not receive the treatment. Mindmaze is a Swiss app that allows patients to practice moving their fingers or lifting their arms with the help of VR. Although patients do not carry out the actual movement, their engagement, motivation and attention improve with audio-visual feedback. This technology could speed the recovery of traumatized nervous systems.

The likely future of VR

VR and AR show great promise in the future. As these specific technologies continue to advance, users will experience more personalized, accessible, affordable and advanced experiences. For example, some of the current virtual reality devices lack the optimal visual quality to provide exhilarating experiences. Some of the headsets are bulky and expensive, which greatly hinders mass adoption. Future devices are likely to give users more wholesome, boundless and fulfilling experiences without unduly burdening their pockets. In the coming years, users are also likely to benefit from augmented and virtual reality experiences. AR and VR will likely experience a renaissance in the coming years, leading companies to identify new ways of using the technologies to enhance healthcare, research and entertainment.