Eight New Uses For Virtual Reality

Fasten your headsets. VR technology is coming at us from all directions

Harry Campbell
Harry Campbell

Training doctors. Treating anxiety. Traveling to the roof of the world. As VR technology gets better and cheaper, all kinds of people are finding there is a substitute for experience after all.

Games | Beyond Minecraft

Gamers will soon be able to do battle as a Marvel comic-book character like the Hulk or Rocket Raccoon (“Marvel Powers United VR,” out in 2018). You can already explore the skies of Paris as an eagle (“Eagle Flight”) or fend off a zombie apocalypse in the Wild West (“Arizona Sunshine”).

Medicine | Smooth Operator

Surgeons use VR to simulate operations and practice treating trauma victims. Paramedics rehearse dealing with dangerous situations. Burn patients rely on VR as a distraction from painful treatments. And Vivid Vision uses VR to treat amblyopia and other vision disorders.

Psychotherapy | Confronting Fears

VR is a new tool in exposure therapy, in which patients face a traumatic experience to defuse it. “Bravemind” lets soldiers with PTSD visit virtual war zones. Patients with a fear of heights board a virtual elevator. Terrified of public speaking? Address a virtual audience.

Travel | Bucket List

Everest VR” draws on a database of 300,000 images to take you from the base camp to the summit. After you reach the peak, unlock “God mode,” a view from the heavens. With Digital Domain’s “Teleport” series, go on an African safari or ride a gondola on Venice’s Grand Canal.

Education | Living Lessons

In apps from zSpace, students tinker with an interactive periodic table (“Curie’s Elements”) or dissect a virtual frog (“VIVED Science”). A recent exhibit at Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture put visitors in Rosa Parks’ seat on a segregated bus.

Space | The Feel of Zero G

Mission: ISS” brings you aboard the International Space Station, where you can dock cargo capsules and go on a spacewalk. To train real astronauts, NASA uses a “mixed reality” simulator that combines VR with a robotic crane that can mimic the feel of micro-, lunar or Martian gravity

Documentaries | Lens on the World

Meet an Ebola survivor (“Waves of Grace”), conga in Havana’s streets (“A History of Cuban Dance”), get a sense of what it’s like to lose your sight (“Notes on Blindness”) or view the Battle of Antietam through the eyes of siblings on opposing sides of the Civil War (“My Brother’s Keeper”).

Activism | Empathy Machine

Al Gore makes the case for climate change in “Melting Ice,” which transports you to the warming waters of Greenland. Animal Equality’s “iAnimal” takes the view of a factory-farmed pig. The Guardian newspaper, which opposes solitary confinement, gives you a feel for it in “6x9.”

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This article is a selection from the October issue of Smithsonian magazine