BACKGROUND: How can students travel to exotic places and experience realistic, interactive environments without physically leaving the classroom? Virtual field trips use state-of-the-art computer simulation technology to create immersive, multisensory interactive experiences with real-world environments.
WHAT IS VIRTUAL REALITY: The term "virtual reality" is often confusing because it is used in so many different ways. It is often used to describe interactive software programs -- on or off the Web -- in which the user responds to visual and auditory cures as he or she navigates a three-dimensional environment on a graphics monitor. But originally, it referred to immersive virtual environments, in which the user would be immersed in an artificial, three-dimensional computer-generated world, involving not just sight and sound, but touch as well through so-called "haptic" devices. Touch is vital to direct and guide human movement, and the use of haptics in virtual environments simulates how objects and actions feel to the user through biofeedback processes. This is critical for performing virtual surgery as part of medical training, for example.
HOW IT WORKS: The virtual environment itself is brought to life through computer programs. Data gloves, joy sticks, hand-held wands, head-mounted stereo displays and other input devices help the user navigate that world and interact with virtual objects, all of which must be linked together with the rest of the system to produce a fully immersive experience.
ABOUT BIOFEEDBACK: The term "biofeedback" was coined in the 1960s to describe laboratory methods then being used to train subjects to alter their brain activity, blood pressure, heart rate, or other bodily functions that would not normally be controlled voluntarily. One of the most common biofeedback machines picks up electrical signals in the muscles and translates them into a flashing light bulb, or a signal from a beeper. This real-time feedback can help a patient improve his or her performance.