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Virtual Reality

So what is Virtual Reality?

Virtual reality is a computer-generated environment that lets you experience a different reality. A VR headset fits around your head and over your eyes, and visually separates you from whatever space you’re physically occupying. Images are fed to your eyes from two small lenses. Through VR you can virtually hike the Grand Canyon, tour the Louvre, experience a movie as if you are part of it, and immerse yourself in a video game without leaving your couch.

Your five best options for VR

VR comes in a few different forms. There’s the cheap headset that works with your phone and there’s the much more expensive option that requires a powerful PC or gaming console and some space to move around. Whichever path you choose, here are your best options.

Google Cardboard

The easiest and cheapest way to try virtual reality, Google Cardboard is just a piece of folded cardboard with some cheap embedded lenses. When you stick your phone inside and press it up to your face, you can feel like you’re in another world.

Samsung Gear VR

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The best smartphone-based VR headset (for now), Samsung’s Gear VR costs just $99 (£80, AU$159) — assuming you already have a recent Samsung phone. It has more sophisticated sensors than Google Cardboard and is relatively comfortable to wear. Plus it’s got a decent library of purpose-built apps and games.

Oculus Rift

The $599 Oculus Rift (£499, AU$649) is far more immersive than strapping a phone to your face. It tracks your head in all directions, so you can lean in and get right up close to virtual objects. The catch: It requires a powerful gaming PC to generate its graphics, along with a tether leading up to your head.

HTC Vive

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The ultimate VR experience — for now — the $799 (£689) HTC Vive lets you reach out and grab objects in virtual reality, and even walk around a room. Again, you are tethered to a powerful gaming PC, plus you need to clear your living-room-furniture and plug in loads of cables to fulfill your holodeck dreams.

Sony PlayStation VR

The affordable alternative to an Oculus Rift or HTC Vive, the $399 Sony PlayStation VR (£349, AU$550) will let you grab things in VR without requiring a pricy gaming PC as intermediary. Instead, it works with the PlayStation 4 console that you might already own. Just know you’ll need to add controllers, and you shouldn’t expect the graphics to be quite as good as those of the Oculus or Vive.

Here are the ways you’ll be able to use VR

Virtual reality isn’t just a viewmaster for your video games. It’s an entirely new medium whose true purpose is slowly being realized. Here are a few of the ways VR will be used over the next few years.

Entertainment

From films made by Hollywood to live-streamed concerts and theatrical experiences, VR has become a place to view videos that surround you. New cameras are being created to capture these VR stories, and tools to upload and livestream them are growing in number. Soon, these experiences might not even seem like films at all.

Artistry & design

Imagine building a real home with virtual tools, or designing parts for a new car as if it already existed in the real world. Imagine painting a 3D masterpiece while collaborating with friends around the globe. Apps and wand-like controllers are already making VR an amazing playground. Soon enough, these tools could become indispensable for a new generation of 3D design.

Gaming

Obviously, video games are one of the main applications for virtual reality as of today. But VR will give game designers the freedom to take games to incredible new places. They can also find new audiences now that players can just reach out and touch things, and turn their head to look, instead of mastering a complex controller covered with joysticks and buttons. (You can visit How to build a VR-ready PC Post)

Education & simulation

Medicine, chemistry, physics, astronomy: VR can model the world in an incredibly visual way. And, it can also allow those worlds to be expanded and shrunk, played with and entered. Students could take a class trip to ancient Egypt, or try an open-heart surgery without any risks: VR simulations can offer practice runs at techniques, designs and ideas.

Tourism & exploration

Virtual tourism is the next best thing to being there. You could visit Paris, Mars, or the bottom of the ocean. Whether you’re watching a 360-degree video someone shot, or a computationally generated 3D simulation, you can shut out the real world and replace it with your destination of choice. One day, you may be able to explore your own memories as well — imagine recording them with a 360-degree camera, then looking around to see what you missed in the moment.

Psychology & meditation

VR can become a private space for your mind — a place to relax and think. Or it can be a place to explore something uncomfortable in a protective simulation. Virtual worlds can be very removed from the real world, or be labs to explore human behavior. Studies have shown that VR is so distracting, it can be a surprisingly effective painkiller compared with traditional medicine.

Real estate & shopping

Imagine being able to tour a prospective home from miles away, walking right through the property as if you were there. Imagine placing life-size models of your own furniture into that house, to see if they fit. Now imagine walking into a virtual clothing store with infinite shelf space, where you can see and try any shirt, blouse or pair of shoes on sale. Shopping will never be the same.

Social & telepresence

Just because you’re inside a headset doesn’t mean you’re alone. You could jump into a video game avatar to chat and play, or commute to work by inhabiting a telepresence robot with cameras mounted on its body. Can we connect and meaningfully communicate across distances that way? It’s not clear, but developers are already experimenting with the possibilities.

Google Territory

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2016 was a big year for VR, and it’s about to get bigger. Google will be launching its Daydream VR platform in a matter of weeks, Bloomberg reports.

Alphabet, Google’s parent company, is said to be investing big money on content for the platform. Much of this is going toward development of video games and apps, licensing sports leagues and shooting 360-degree videos, many of which include YouTube stars, according to the publication.

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Daydream is being built into the Android 7.0 Nougat operating system, which launched this week. It said back in May that Samsung, HTC, ZTE, Huawei, Xiaomi, Alcatel, Asus and LG had agreed to make “Daydream ready” smartphones.

The idea of the platform is to be the Android of VR. Google will provide a VR platform for other companies to build hardware around, like how it provides an operating system, Android, for companies like Samsung and HTC to build smartphones around.

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However, we’ve not yet seen any headsets designed specifically for the platform.

Google was contacted for comment but did not immediately respond.

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3D Technologies

3D Printers

3D printers might look like something from the future, but they already serve as fundamental tools for many industries. These machines use an additive process to create functional objects from digital files. Their versatile extruders can lay out intricate designs for use in all sorts of situations.

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How Does a 3D Printer Work: The Basics

The printing process can be understood as a few simple steps. It starts with a digital designer. This person creates the blueprint for the project. Once this happens, the 3D printer uses the digital design as a guide. The machine pushes molten plastic through an extruder and layer by layer the object takes shape. When it finishes, the designer can pry the finished prototype from the build plate and clean it up.

How Does a 3D Printer Work: Layers

3D printers rely on computer-aided design (CAD) software to determine the shape and size of a print. Once created, the 3D file goes through a digital slicing process, which cuts the model into printable layers. These printers then use this sliced layer information to determine how much material to extrude and where exactly the material needs to go. They extrude the patterns one layer at a time until the 3D print finishes building.

This additive-build model remains the most common style of 3D printing available, but stereo lithography printers produce similar results. With stereo lithography, the printer controls exposure to a light-sensitive material, solidifying one layer at a time.

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How Does a 3D Printer Work: Print Speed

This building process can take many hours, no matter the style of 3D printer you use. The speed of the printing process depends on the size and complexity of the print. 3D printing software controls the density of the object, and most models use a honeycomb pattern to fill the interior of the print. This process doesn’t require nearly as much filament as full, flat layers and increases the object’s overall print speed.

The density of the interior is not the only factor to consider when creating a 3D file. When you slice a 3D design, you can choose the thickness of the print layers, also referred to as print resolution. Thick layers print faster than thin layers, but they also result in a blockier look for the finished print. Thin layers allow the 3D printer to create much smoother prints, but they can take significantly longer to finish.

What Materials Do 3D Printers Use?

Nowadays, you can purchase plastic filament online. While many consumer 3D printers use some form of plastic, industrial printers can extrude and manipulate many other materials such as wood, nylon, copper and various high-quality plastics. The availability of these alternate materials allows for immense versatility. Some industrial 3D printers even extrude wax, which melts away when cast with metal. Some industrial 3D printers even sinter metal powder into rigid structures.

This wide variety of workable materials ensures that 3D printers work as valuable assets for all sorts of projects. Industries that rely on highly specialized machine parts use them to create replacements and those that rely on working prototypes or short-run products use 3D printers for simple manufacturing.

Now let’s take a look at some of the more popular technologies behind 3D printing:

Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM)/Fused Filament Fabrication (FFF):

Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) was invented by a man named S. Scott Crump a few years after Chuck Hull initially invented 3D printing. Crump went on to commercialize the technology in 1990 via Stratasys, which actually has a trademark on the term. This is why the same general technology is often referred to as Fused Filament Fabrication (FFF).32

Basically the way in which this technology works is rather simple, and this is the reason why 95% of all desktop 3D printers found within homes and garages today utilize FDM/FFF. A thermoplastic such as PLA or ABS is fed into an extruder and through a hotend. The hotend then melts the plastic, turning it into a gooey liquid. The printer then acquires its instructions from the computer via G-code and deposits the molten plastic layer by layer until an entire object is fabricated. The plastic melts rather rapidly, providing a solid surface for each additional layer’s deposition.

Depending on the maximum temperature of the hotend as well as other variables, numerous other materials besides ABS and PLA may be used, including composites of both materials, nylon, and more.

Stereo lithography (SLA):

As we’ve mentioned above, this was the very first 3D printing technology to be invented in 1986. With 3D Systems holding many of the patents involving this technology, which are in the process of 33expiring over the next few years, there has not been a tremendous amount of competition within the market. This means that the technology has been overpriced and used less often than the FDM/FFF alternative has.

Instead of extruding a material out of a hotend, the SLA process works with a laser or DLP projector combined with a photosensitive resin. Objects are printed in a vat of resin as a laser or other lighting source like a projector slowly cures (hardens) the resin layer-by-layer as the object is formed. Typically SLA machines are able to achieve far better accuracy and less of a layered appearance than FDM/FFF technology can.

Selective Laser Sintering (SLS)/Selective Laser Melting (SLM)/Direct Metal Laser Sintering (DMLS):

All three of these technologies are very similar, yet have marked differences. We’ve found that many individuals use the terms interchangeably when, in fact, there are reasons to use one method over the others. Both Selective Laser Sintering (SLS) and Direct Metal Laser Sintering (DMLS) are in fact the same technology. The 34difference in terminology is based on the materials used. DMLS specifically refers to the layer-by-layer sintering of metal powders using a laser beam, while SLS is simply the same process but with non-metal materials such as plastics, ceramics, glass, etc. Both DMLS and SLS do not fully melt the materials, instead sintering them or fusing them together at the molecular level. When dealing with metals, DMLS is ideal for metal alloys, as the molecules have varying melting points, meaning a full melt can sometimes be difficult to achieve.

On the other hand, when dealing with metals consisting of one material, for instance titanium, Selective Laser Melting (SLM) is the way to go as a laser is able to completely melt the molecules together. All three processes are currently expensive, and out of the budgets of most individuals and even small businesses because of the high powered laser beams that are required. Additionally safety precautions must be taken, meaning additional expenses on the part of the user.

PolyJetting:

A technology invented by the Israeli company Objet, which merged with Stratasys back in 2012, PolyJetting incorporates elements of both inkjet 2D printing and the Stereolithography process. Basically, inkjet nozzles spray a a liquid photosensitive resin onto a build platform in a similar fashion as ink is sprayed onto a piece of paper during a typical 2D printing process. Immediately following the ejection of the material a UV light source is introduced to the material, quickly curing it before the next layer of photosensitive liquid is sprayed on top. The process repeats until an entire object is fabricated. Stratasys currently uses such technologies within their popular Connex family of machines.

Plaster Based 3D Printing (PP)

This is a process requiring the use of two different materials: a powder material (gypsum plaster, starch, etc.) that sits on a print bed, along with a binding ink which is ejected from a nozzle similar35 to that of an inkjet printer onto the bed of powder, hardening it. Once one layer of powder is binded, a rake-like instrument sifts additional powder over that layer and the process continues until an entire object is fabricated. This technology was originally invented at MIT in the early ’90s before being commercialized in 1995 by a company called Z Corporation, which was acquired in 2011 by 3D Systems for $137 million.

Others:

Every week it seems as though new approaches are presented for 3D printing. There are new technologies which have recently been unveiled like that of HP’s Multi Jet Fusion, as well as Carbon3D’s CLIP technology. As we move into the next several years it will be interesting to see which such technologies take hold and which may fall by the wayside.

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