GV Expo: Breaking Down Virtual Reality Barriers

WASHINGTON—Virtual reality has been around for a while, but between its association with video games and how goofy people can look wearing a headset and reacting to something only they can see, people pegged it as a niche technology. However, as the panelists on the “From Research to (Virtual) Reality” panel explained during the 2017 Government Video Expo, that stereotype is being broken down bit by bit.

(L to R) Session moderator Cristina Clapp, Barrinton Baynes, Dr. Jackie Huband, Dr. Denise Krch, and Harrison Linowes

The last few years have seen significant progress in the capabilities of virtual and augmented reality applications, but the medium is still a relatively new. However, a number of institutions have begun using VR headsets and programs for practical uses. Barrinton Baynes, a multimedia project manager for the Gelardin New Media Center at Georgetown University, has helped students and teachers develop programs that serve as education tools that provide immersive experience students may not otherwise receive.

The medical profession has also begun to accept the technology, as Dr. Jackie Huband, a computational research consultant for the Virtual Reality Lab at the University of Virginia, and Dr. Denise Krch, a research scientist for the Kessler Foundation, explained. VR has proven to be an effective treatment for burn victims and those going through physical therapy. Dr. Krch has used the technology to develop VR programs that help people with cognitive difficulties train to handle multitasking and other work requirements.

But just because there are compelling and effective methods out there, doesn’t mean the stigma surrounding VR will immediately go away. Often, people will still need help with taking that first step.

“We’re going to have to figure out what is the easiest way that we can develop these applications so people can easily interact,” said Harrison Linowes, a University of Maryland computer sciences major and president of the school’s VR club. “The easier it is for these applications to have people interact with them, the more adoption we’re going to see.”

How to do that can vary on the institution, or the audience. For Dr. Huband, stressing that these programs are simulations rather than games and to find programs that are less cartoonish has opened up the possibilities for how people she works with see VR. Dr. Krch, however, thinks that the game like mentality of some of these programs is very helpful, especially with patients and removing some of the repetitiveness of treatment.

“The idea of doing something gamified is more fun and motivating,” said Dr. Krch. “Because people find it fun they want to play it and they want to get better at it.”

Dr. Krch also feels that as more institutions begin utilizing the technology, it will open the door for greater collaboration between those who may not traditionally work together. “The opportunities are going to be pretty great just by virtue of the fact that all these people who maybe wouldn’t have used this before are going to be looking at it as a way to do research.”

The development of the technology might also help with eliminating some of the technological barriers that currently exist with the necessity of headsets. “In the next few years, your phone will definitely be able to be as powerful as the computers we’re using now,” said Baynes.

And for the younger generation who will be entering the workforce and have the chance to implement VR technology, like Linowes, in the next few years, their familiarity with it will also help accelerate its overall adoption. “I hope that in my industry, and across the board, everyone has a headset next to them at their desk,” said Linowes.

“We’re just at the very beginning of looking at how virtual reality and augmented reality can enhance our day to day existence,” said Huband. “And we’re really excited about that, and we’re looking forward to what we can do in the future with all of this.”