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Virtual reality finds fans at Reading University

Professors at Reading University see virtual reality as an increasingly important research and teaching tool in science and arts subjects

Academics at Reading University are applying virtual reality (VR) technology across multiple disciplines, and hope to make it a vital element of their research and teaching work.

Andrew Glennerster, professor of psychology and clinical language services at Reading, is using immersive VR to find out how the human visual system represents the shape of surfaces.

Until recently, said Glennerster, neurological research such as his relied on the subject remaining still, often in an MRI scanner, which did not always give an accurate picture of how the brain processed visual signals in day-to-day life.

However, now that the cost of VR equipment has come down, it has become feasible to use it to study how the brain processes images when the subject is in motion as they normally would be.

“With immersive virtual reality we have the capacity to generate a fictitious world that gives you the ability to do things you can’t do in reality,” he said.

Glennerster demonstrated some of the “impossible” VR scenarios used in his studies of human vision, such as M.C. Escher-style rooms that appeared to expand and contract.

“Affordable, immersive VR will be crucial for neuroscience and behavioural therapy. It will revolutionise research,” he said. 

Students construct ancient sites with VR

Meanwhile, Matthew Nicholls, associate professor at Reading’s Department of Classics, has spent several years constructing a 3D digital map of Ancient Rome for use as a teaching aid.

Using this map, he has created a VR space that allows the user to walk or fly through a detailed rendering of Rome as it existed in the early 4th century CE.

“VR allows people without a £250,000 research budget to pick it up and use it,” said Nicholls. “Visitors to the department find it extremely compelling and it’s a great way of bringing an ancient space back to life.”

Nicholls is also using VR in the classroom to help students construct architectural models of ancient Roman sites in the UK, including Silchester in Hampshire. “It transforms their understanding of ancient spaces,” he said.

Allure of virtual reality

Glennerster and Nicholls were speaking at an event hosted by research house Context, at which it unveiled consumer research suggesting that virtual reality was becoming increasingly alluring to consumers.

At the event, which in a nod to its hosts at London’s British Museum hailed virtual reality as the “101st object” to shape the history of the world, Context revealed that three-quarters of Britons had heard of VR.

The study looked at the opinions of 2,511 respondents in France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the UK, and found that the majority were most excited about the applications of VR in sports, film and television, placing themselves at the centre of the action in football matches or TV shows.

Others were interested in trying experiences they might not get to do in real life, such as parachute jumping or scuba diving, while respondents who identified as gamers were notably more interested in the applications of VR in enhancing social interaction.

“Now that consumers are aware of the term, the onus is on manufacturers and retailers to tell the VR story,” said Adam Simon, Context global managing director of retail.

“Further education is needed to explain why VR merits the buzz it has generated and why people should begin to invest. Above all, consumers should be given the chance to try on the VR headset. Once you’ve tried VR, you are sold on the concept,” he said.

For this reason, the bulk of early stage sales of VR equipment appeared to be coming from specialist bricks and mortar retailers, Context found, with the likes of Amazon left behind.

“VR transports you immediately to the most incredible places, and trying it out in the store is the only way to experience it. Online 360-degree videos don’t come close. Retailers should jump at the chance to create dedicated spaces for inquisitive shoppers,” said Simon.

Context found that the majority of consumers were most familiar with basic VR form factors, such as Google Cardboard, with just under half saying an untethered headset paired with a smartphone would be their format of choice.

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