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Ready Player... You? Welcome to the Virtual Reality revolution

The potential of Virtual Reality (VR) symbolises many of the most positive perceptions of the future. The idea of fully immersive, realistic digital environments that can allow you to get completely lost in another world or a gripping narrative (or both) is incredibly enticing. In popular culture, probably the most famous example is the ‘Star Trek’ holodeck. Whilst a couple of episodes did explore the potential negative impacts of such technology (the notion of ‘holo addiction’), the holodeck was seen overall as a positive technological development, in line with that classic show’s generally utopian view of the future. Of course, there are some cultural works that have expressed a more cautious tone to VR or even a dire dystopian warning alarm, again the most famous example probably being 1999’s seminal film ‘The Matrix’. But VR technology doesn’t seem to cause as much unease amongst the general population in terms of possible negative impacts on human society as other emerging technologies do, such as Artificial Intelligence (AI) or widespread robotic automation.

“Just as a microscope and a telescope extended our senses, so could VR” – Howard Rheingold, American critic, writer and academic

In the minds of many, VR is closely associated with entertainment, in particular video gaming. Most of the major gaming/computing giants, as well as many smaller gaming SMEs, have experimented with VR technologies over the past decade, some with more success than others. Admittedly, the technology is still in its infancy – VR games today make up a small percentage of game releases and in no way can VR be considered ‘mainstream’ yet. As the gaming industry is now larger than the film industry in terms of total revenue, innovation will definitely still come from this sector over the next few years. Companies and researchers are looking to develop tools that will make VR even more enticing, immersive, attractive, accessible and – importantly – cost-effective for players, such as smaller, less clunky headsets and completely new devices that could allow for a real sense of touch to be introduced to VR environments. But we must also emphasise strongly that VR and its technological siblings, Augmented Reality (AR) and Extended Reality (XR), offer extremely practical real-world benefits that could enhance our lives in more ways than simply entertaining us. From trainee surgeons learning to do open-heart surgery in a completely safe VR environment, to virtual exhibitions that have helped museums ride out the pandemic, and realistic VR avatars that help us to do our online shopping, the possibilities are endless. The idea that VR isn’t just a technology that solely caters to individual whims but can also have valuable social benefits on a wider scale is also being explored by researchers – for example, VR environments could be used as a neutral staging ground to build intergroup trust and reconciliation following conflict or deep political polarisation. The projects showcased in this month’s special feature have all been funded through the EU’s Horizon 2020 programme and they highlight both the entertainment and practical sides of the VR coin. The EU strongly supports the growth of a world-class European VR sector, due to its potential to really transform our lives and the exciting employment and growth opportunities it offers. Already there are numerous ‘VR hubs’ across Europe where innovative companies are making their mark. The next decade promises major innovation and we very much look forward to seeing how the VR landscape – virtual and otherwise – will grow and evolve over that time. We look forward to receiving your feedback. You can send questions or suggestions to editorial@cordis.europa.eu.

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