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Q How does virtual reality work?

— Molly Torinus

A Kevin Ponto, assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and researcher at the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery:

Virtual reality is often talked about in terms of 3-D computer graphics or technology. A broader definition says virtual reality is the idea of combining the physical world and the artificial world in such a way that the two are indistinguishable.

The field of virtual reality does pretty well in terms of visuals, creating computer graphics that look fairly realistic, and can produce sounds that are realistic. Bigger challenges come with senses like touch and smell.

Virtual reality technology is being used in a variety of ways. For example, the Living Environments Lab (LEL) at the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery had an original goal of understanding health in the home environment.

When people go to the doctor or go to the hospital, they’re in an ideal environment for taking care of their health, studying health. When people go back home, their environment isn’t necessarily built for health care.

The LEL decided to create a virtual reality environment that simulates home environments. Researchers can conduct studies to learn more about how the environment affects people’s health information management and adherence to doctor’s advice.

Researchers go into homes with a technology called LIDAR, which stands for light detection and ranging. The LIDAR scanner can capture the depth and color of everything in a room it can see.

Once the environments are captured, they’re projected in the six-sided virtual reality CAVE at the LEL. People can navigate through the virtual environments with this tool, and researchers can start understanding which context and cues in the home environment are motivating people’s health management.

This same technology and methodology could be used to capture and analyze crime scenes, allow architects to visualize designs in a virtual environment or even be used as a tool for learning.

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Blue Sky Science is a collaboration of the Wisconsin State Journal and the Morgridge Institute for Research.

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