The rise, fall, and rise again of virtual reality

Published on September 21, 2015

Virtual reality failed in the '90s for a number of reasons. It's making a comeback. What will the future look like when VR becomes an actual reality?

The promise of virtual reality has long held allure. Wear a headset, and go nowhere and anywhere simultaneously. It’s this kind of escapism that has made it a common motif in science fiction literature and films since the 1950s. And for a long time it has remained exactly that; just a motif – an unrealized idea of a cogent computer-generated world. Attempts were made to create successful virtual reality headsets in the 1990s, but the means could not meet the vision.
As a result, attempts at consumer VR were largely abandoned and the technology has lain almost dormant since, existing largely out of sight in some niche areas of science and engineering.
Now, companies are hedging their bets that the technology needed to successfully create a believable virtual world has arrived. And if they’re right, VR is set to revolutionize everything from video games to social media and design.
Big players in virtual reality
The most notable advocate of the virtual reality revival is Oculus, a company born from a teenager’s Kickstarter campaign. After Palmer Luckey’s VR headset designs caught the attention of John Carmack, a famous video game and graphics programmer, they collaborated, and the project ended up raising $2.4m. In 2014, Oculus was bought by mark Zuckerburg for $2 billion – a prescient decision signalling a promising but undefined future for VR.

Image: Marco Verch (Oculus Rift @ Gamescom) via Wikimedia Commons 

Sony is promoting their own headset, ‘PlayStation VR’, alongside ‘Vive’, a collaboration from Valve and HTC. And just because their offerings are cheaper and made of cardboard, we shouldn’t ignore Google and Samsung’s flirtation with VR.
So does VR have a better chance at reaching the mainstream this time round?
Alongside higher quality graphics, we now have extra computational power, higher quality screens and improvements in the tracking sensors that monitor what the user is doing, all of which combine to create the most advanced virtual reality experience yet.
The VR of today uses two high-res LCD screens – one for each eye. Separating the image into two parts is called stereoscopy, and it takes into account the way the human eye recognizes differences between the images to create a perception of depth. Using this in VR can fool your brain into thinking you’re in a fully 3D world.
Creating a world of the highest quality is paramount to the success of VR, and we have a much better chance of doing this now.
The virtual reality market
With a whole host of companies battling it out to seize the VR market, it’s likely prices will be competitive. Although none has disclosed an amount, given that the audience they’re all targeting are the early-adopter consumers, it wouldn’t be a stretch to estimate a price tag of a few hundred dollars for the full kit.
San Francisco consultancy Digi-Capital have estimated that the VR market could be worth $30 billion by 2020, suggesting the technology is set to supplant things like personal drones as the next big thing to trickle down into consumer electronics. The pace of advancements is likely to rocket as the market explodes.

Image: Saha via Wikimedia Commons 

VR is still so new that what works and what doesn’t hasn’t been definitively confirmed. Often, it is still necessary to suspend your disbelief in order to be truly immersed in the experience. Unsurprisingly, all the companies who are venturing into VR are initially targeting the video game contingent – a community well versed in technology with an open mind to artificially created worlds.
Future applications of VR
VR won’t just be limited to gaming. Here’s a list of 3 rising uses of the technology:

  1. Film – The logical next step will be film. Already, films that immerse the viewer in-media-res are springing up, with one called ‘Clouds over Sidra’ proving to be a hit online. Film has been around for over 200 years, and people have become genre-savvy. As VR heightens the emotional intensity of what the user is sees, it could refresh the film-going experience.
  1. Social – VR could also turn social media on its head and give our generation of over-sharers even more scope to project a kind of tele-reality of their social updates. Already aligned with VR in their acquisition of Oculus, Facebook is also reportedly developing a stand-alone app for mobile that will support 360-degree videos, strengthening their position as a contender in VR.

All users need is an iOS or Android device to access an inexpensive VR experience, which can be monetized through ads and paid content. It’s likely that users will pay a small fee for the experience, as it offers access to VR without the hefty headset price tag. Smartphone-mounted headsets like the Samsung gear look set to drive the VR market in the short term, as it’s easiest for users to adopt, and Facebook is primed and ready to leverage this.

  1. Design – We should be set to see VR infiltrating lots of industries, but one of the spheres where it is particularly applicable is design. Model plans could be made life-size, contextualized and fully explorable. Using VR in product design allows for increased understanding and interaction with product data, while also fostering communication between designers, marketers, manufacturers and everyone else involved in the design process.

Already, VR has been used to sketch animations, and engineers at companies like Caterpillar and General motors are already virtually testing design principles and safety with the technology – VR will soon be a standard for design.

Glen Keane – Step into the Page from Future Of StoryTelling on Vimeo.

Virtual reality is becoming a tangible reality
Although it’s clear that VR has practical applications across a wealth of industries and the technology is advancing at a rapid pace, it is not without its critics. Wearing a headset and making adjustments to it is much more involved than just glancing at a screen. Getting people to adopt intrusive tech is difficult – just look at Google Glass and 3D TV. And it can’t be ignored that the immersive nature of VR removes the social aspect of watching a traditional screen with friends.
Still, there is an infectious sense of innovation and ferment around VR tech, with advances being made in pupil-tracking and haptic feedback (the use of gloves to provide touch sensation). And even if full virtual reality can’t be successfully realized yet, these advances in knowledge can be successfully applied to augmented reality – a stepping-stone to the more immersive virtual experience.

Image: Nicole Stenger via Wikimedia Commons

Imagine a decade ago trying to envision the way we use mobile phones now – VR has this promise. It’s a medium for progress, giving us access to things that are out of reach physically or economically.
The improvement in the technology is vast and, though it hasn’t reached the verisimilitude of science fiction, this will be the first of many iterations that will take us there. It’s hard to tell which (if any) of the headsets will be successful, but the world of virtual reality is set to become a reality in the not so distant future.