The hope that virtual reality (VR) will become a reality has been around for decades. Anyone who can recall the excitement in the early 1990s will likely roll their eyes at the recent hype. Thanks to the 1992 film Lawnmower Man, the 90s saw a slew of products that failed to deliver on overly optimistic expectations. The products were bulky, expensive, and performed terribly. The world grew disenchanted, funding dried up, and VR became a concept relegated to science fiction in the eyes of the public.
Resuscitated by Facebook’s $2.23 billion acquisition of Oculus Rift in March 2014, the excitement around VR is now back in full force, and major players like Sony, Samsung, and HTC have also joined the race. People are excited about VR again, and creators are pushing out content on a daily basis. The burning question, however, is whether this time around things will be different.
Why This Time It’s Different
For any hardware platform to reach widespread adoption, the performance needs to be smooth, the implementation needs to be practical, and the applications need to be compelling. While time will tell whether VR will finally become mainstream, no one can deny that a lot has changed since the previous cycle.
For one, the growth of the smartphone industry has had tremendous implications for creating powerful, yet affordable VR for a mainstream audience. The development of high resolution displays, sensors, CPUs and GPUs at scale has dramatically improved the performance of all of the above while significantly reducing prices.
High quality displays are required to provide compelling VR experiences, while sensors, such as gyroscopes, accelerometers, and magnetometers help detect your direction and movement within the virtual world. Processing speeds affect the latency between a user’s actions in the real world and the effects of those actions in the virtual world.
Given the importance of visuals in virtual reality, powerful GPUs are essential for faster refresh rates, sharp rendering, and realistic lighting or shading. These factors are important for delivering fully immersive experiences that don’t cause nausea. As with CPUs, mobile GPUs have also significantly improved since the beginning of the smartphone boom. Apple’s A8 processor, for example, is up to 84x faster than that of the original iPhone.
Rapid advancements of these critical components have led to the ability to create powerful head-mounted displays (HMDs) at consumer friendly price points. Facebook’s Oculus Rift DK2 goes for a very affordable $350. Compare that with the predecessors that cost $10,000 — $20,000 or more (which despite the hefty price tag, were not very good to begin with). It is no wonder VR hasn’t become widely accessible until now. The relevant technology has finally reached the nexus where HMDs have become affordable, small, and powerful enough to be practical from a mainstream standpoint.
Perhaps more importantly, the smartphone revolution has put screens and sensors, as well as high performing GPUs and CPUs into the palms of millions of consumers. This has created a potential install base large enough to entice people to develop applications and create content. The Samsung Gear VR or Google Cardboard take advantage of this, and enable users to transform their smartphones into HMDs. While this still requires the purchase of a head-mount, the displays themselves are essentially already distributed, creating a much cheaper entry point to VR for many people.
While the potential applications for VR are still being explored, the pioneers working on this frontier are now markedly better equipped than they’ve ever been before. The existence of game engines like Unity and Unreal Engine have made it possible for high quality 3D experiences to be created in smaller teams at significantly lower budgets. Many developers have also had extensive experience working on 3D games, animated films, or special effects, making the transition to VR much more attainable. The search for the compelling applications is no longer just in the hands of a few major players. There is a thriving developer community to pave the way.
Where VR is Going
It is impossible to fully predict all the killer applications for VR. Ten years ago, no one could have done the same for smartphones. However, taking a look at what is currently being developed gives us a glimpse of what is on the horizon. While gaming is often what comes to mind, compelling use cases exist far beyond.
In the past, the video game industry has been one of the biggest drivers of VR technology, but not the only one. The US military has used VR for flight, vehicle, and battlefield simulations to train troops. They’ve also used VR to treat Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), enabling soldiers to learn to cope with some of their psychological conditions. Similarly, the healthcare industry has applied it to training surgeons, as well as helping patients with anxiety disorders and phobias.
Looking towards the future, entertainment likely rivals gaming in terms of promise. Movies, TV shows, live sports, musical concerts and even adult entertainment have a place in VR. Both new and traditional media companies have already begun experimenting with the medium. Jaunt VR, a startup based in Palo Alto, is developing a suite of tools for studios to create cinematic virtual reality experiences. Imagine being completely immersed in the movie Jurassic Park, side by side in the jungle with the characters, looking left and right, wondering whether a velociraptor is going to jump out of the trees and have you for dinner. In the future, perhaps every moviegoer will be required to wear a diaper.
NextVR, a startup based in Los Angeles, has been working on promising VR for live sports. They’ve developed a technology to live-stream VR experiences in broadcast quality, all in stereoscopic 360-degree video. Envision being able to sell unlimited tickets to virtual seats at major sporting events like the World Cup or the Olympics. The NBA has worked with both NextVR and Milk VR (a VR video network launched by Samsung in the beginning of 2015) to stream the 2015 NBA All-Star Game. They’ve also tested various experiences, such as different perspectives around the court and locker room, as well as sitting right at the table with the commentators.
When it comes to entertainment for VR, there are numerous questions that have yet to be answered — like how long should a typical piece of content be? It is still unclear whether prolonged viewing will become uncomfortable, or cause nausea for the majority of people. Furthermore, the distribution of high quality VR is currently limited by enormous file sizes. A four minute clip, for example, can run around 500mb or more. While compression technology will improve and internet speeds are increasing, this is undoubtedly a barrier to widespread adoption in the short term.
However, some studios have embraced this reality, creating short, bite-sized pieces of VR. VRSE, another Los Angeles based VR company, has created several short clips ranging from a tour of New York City to siting in the audience of Saturday Night Live. One of their works, Clouds Over Sidra, is a short documentary in collaboration with the United Nations that takes you through a day in the life of a young girl in a Syrian refugee camp. Throughout the 8 minute clip, the girl tells you about her family as you accompany her around the encampment. It is a powerful, immersive experience that truly makes you feel as though you are there with her, living in those conditions.
The beauty of VR is that it allows you to put on goggles, go nowhere, and yet be anywhere — which is perhaps why it poses both the greatest opportunity and the greatest threat to the travel industry. In Japan, travel companies have been experimenting in some of their physical locations, showcasing Oculus Rift demos for customers to try. Eventually, they may be able to ask you, “would you like to try Hawaii and Thailand in virtual reality before you decide which one to visit?”
Visiting in VR before you travel is a fascinating proposition, but what if people decide to just visit in VR and skip the traveling altogether? Most of us will still opt to go in person. Surely anything in VR can’t match the experience of actually being there and satisfying all of your senses. At least not yet. But for the elderly or handicapped, VR opens up an entirely new way for them to see the world.
Where We Are And How Far VR Will Go
When it comes to understanding how good VR is today, it is extremely important that those trying it for the first time try the right content. Many make the mistake of trying one piece of content and basing their impression on just that experience. But when you try a new food at a restaurant that doesn’t prepare the food very well, you will likely get a bad impression and never try it again. The same goes for VR. Trying the right content is crucial to realizing just how far we have come.
As for predicting how far VR will go — no one really knows. Investment banks and research firms have begun to churn out forecasts, but with hardly any historical data, most of these are probably closer to guesses. However, if virtual reality is truly the next big computing platform, as Mark Zuckerberg says it will be, then perhaps it has the potential to be even bigger than mobile. Eugene Chung, former Head of Film & Media at Oculus VR, makes an interesting case for this possibility.
“If we graph computing platforms of the last 60 years and their adoption rates, starting with the Mainframe, an interesting trend emerges. The mainframe (1MM), the minicomputer (10MM), the PC (100MM), the desktop internet (1Bn), the mobile internet (10 Bn). The rise of every major computing platform generated ten times the number of users as the previous one.” — Eugene Chung
This may seem like an overly optimistic view, but nothing ever seems obvious at first. If we’ve learned anything from previous cycles, it is that we should approach emerging technologies with calculated optimism. We should explore this new frontier while also understanding it’s current limitations. Ultimately, all we can do as futurists is look to the past for cues as to what the future will bring. Only time will tell how virtual reality really changes our world.