Virtual reality (VR) has had a rocky history marked by false starts and deflated promises. But with the underlying technology far more mature than before, and with Internet titans Facebook and Google both looking to be the pied piper of VR app developers, things are starting to get real.
Virtual reality (VR) refers to the creation of a completely artificial environment, primarily through digital means. Typically, users can interact with that digital world, walking through deserts and jungles, scaling granite cliffs, driving Formula-1 race cars, or shooting the heads off of zombies.
Today, the usual portal into the VR world is a device placed on, or near, the face – either something handheld (as you would with a pair of binoculars), or more commonly, a head-mounted display (HMD) that leaves the hands free to work a controller (gesture-based or handheld) for navigating the virtual landscape. Packed into the devices are accelerometers, gyrometers, compasses, and other technology that tracks your head movement and changes your perspective accordingly.
More advanced forms of VR deliver a kinesthetic sense of motion and touch. If you’re climbing a rock wall, you feel the ascent in your hands, legs, and feet. Many programs include digital representations of your limbs to add realism and reduce “cybersickness” (more on this later).
Some VR environments include a full representation of your body, especially if other participants are involved. All of this sensory input creates what VR enthusiasts call presence, the feeling that you’re inside the game, not sitting apart and watching it.
Everything old is new again
Last year, Facebook paid USD2 billion to buy Oculus, a VR company that began life on the crowdfunding platform Kickstarter. The high-profile acquisition put VR back in the headlines, but virtual reality has been around for decades. In the early 90s, VR in movies enjoyed a brief period of popularity, but the herky-jerky animation quality and uncomfortably bulky headsets made it less than fun. Another big drawback was nausea, sometimes called “cybersickness,” as the movement of onscreen graphics lagged a few beats behind the movement of the user’s head. This issue is complicated, and is still being worked on, but is improving as the experience becomes increasingly true-to-life.
More recently, the concept of VR enjoyed a recrudescence in Second Life, a virtual world launched in 2003 by San Francisco-based Linden Labs. Briefly heralded as a ground-breaking platform, Second Life had its own currency, allowing people to trade virtual goods and services and buy virtual property. Coca-Cola and other companies paid to advertise in Second Life; news media covered it; several countries opened virtual embassies there. But while it still has a million active users, its initial promise has gone unrealized.
Virtual reality stayed in limbo for a few more years, and seemed on the verge of dying out, but then in August 2009, a 16-year old VR enthusiast named Palmer Luckey joined an online forum for 3D media enthusiasts called MTBS3D. According to the forum’s founder, Neil Schneider, the VR enthusiast community had what he “aggressively” estimates to be 150 vocal members, worldwide. Schneider allowed Luckey to start his own forum section on DIY projects, which discussed creating crude head-mounted displays out of spare parts. Luckey’s first Oculus prototype hit the VR convention scene three years later. Less than two years after that, Facebook bought Oculus. And the rest is history.
So how (and why) did Luckey succeed where others have failed? He has attributed some of his success to good timing, as his work on VR coincided with the arrival of the smartphone, a device that helped proliferate and optimize vital VR components like sensors, gyroscopes, and small screens. Oculus has also been credited with numerous technical breakthroughs, such as minimizing image persistence, the lag time from the moment you turn your head to when the VR image adjusts to it.
But the true success factor may really be Moore’s Law. According to José Alvarez, Director of Strategy at Huawei Media Lab, “As technology improves, you get more computational power per watt. That means glasses and computer screens get better, and you can see everything in high-definition.” This is Moore’s law in action – a doubling of processing power every 18 months or so – plus infinitely more sophisticated software. Both add up to much better graphics than what was possible even a few years ago.
And now, even college kids are able to develop apps for it. VR@Berkeley is a student organization at the University of California at Berkeley devoted to advancing AR & VR, and they’re currently developing a driving simulator that runs on Oculus hardware and the Unity game engine, with the purpose of enabling researchers to study how users react to various driving scenarios, leading to later AR applications for enhancing driving safety. Another project of theirs is a Halloween-themed horror-game, meant to “scare people so badly that they’ll really believe in VR.”
Ready for its close-up
VR is not yet a consumer product, and it’s far too early to say what VR’s killer app might be. Where entertainment is concerned, the hackneyed phrase game-changer could prove accurate for once. VR really does have a shot at fundamentally altering the gaming landscape, bringing unprecedented realism to virtual events such as concerts and ball games. It might also reinvigorate the massive multiplayer online role-playing (MMORP) genre, exemplified by Second Life and World of Warcraft. MMORP was big 10 years ago, but started declining when smartphones replaced Internet cafés as young peoples’ primary means of online access.
“VR is becoming widely used in gaming because the technology creates believable worlds through higher resolution, faster data transfers, and more computing power,” says Alvarez. “Finally, products are meeting the expectations created by Hollywood and marketing campaigns.”
The ability to create new worlds is a natural fit for the movie industry. According to the Los Angeles Times, “a furious quest is underway” to stake a claim in what some see as the next frontier of cinematic storytelling. A-list directors like Steven Spielberg and Ridley Scott are working with VR companies to develop movie content. An outfit called CINEMERSIA has already produced a full-length feature film due to open in theaters in August. Digi-Capital, an advisory firm, estimates that VR could generate USD30 billion in revenue by 2020, with most of that going to games and movies.
How will it begin?
So how will VR gain traction and spread? A debate raging among VR cognoscenti centers on the “quality vs. accessibility” trade-off. This debate is exemplified by the two biggest names in VR – Facebook and Google. Facebook, owner of Oculus, represents quality, and this school of thought says that the most important factor in popularizing VR is to provide the highest quality experience possible – low latency, high resolution, and so on – whether or not there currently exists a mass audience willing to a pay premium for it. Quality, the argument goes, is paramount because at this early stage of the game, one or two low-quality apps might convince people that today’s VR is no different from the disappointing efforts of the 1990s. How much will “quality” cost? Palmer Luckey of Oculus recently said he expects next year’s Rift headset to cost upwards of USD1,000.
Another group takes the opposite approach, arguing that the key factor in creating demand is to make VR devices as cheap and easy-to-get as possible. This view is exemplified by Google, which has released Cardboard (yes, that really is its name) – a fold-up headset into which users slip their cell phones whose first iteration can be bought for less than five U.S. dollars online. Google says that a least a million units have sold. Does it work? When Google released Cardboard’s second iteration this past May, Wired magazine proclaimed, “Google Cardboard is VR’s gateway drug. It’s still a million miles away from the best VR demos out there. But Cardboard more than accomplishes what it’s supposed to: It transports you. It won’t be the last one you ever buy. It’s just supposed to be the first one.”
Of course, neither scenario precludes the other; both represent a market segment. The real question is what application will make VR a must-have item? Virtual Facebook could help make social media more social. Google could make map and search functionality more intuitive (and less “first-page” dependent). Both companies undoubtedly want to be the homepage of the virtual reality Internet, known today as “the Metaverse.” On the surface, both companies seem evenly matched. But Google may have an ace-in-the-hole (more on that in the next paragraph).
But there’s one trend that has to be overcome for there to even be a Metaverse. The modern lifestyle is light & mobile, lived on-the-go, with screen switching and task switching the norm, while VR is an activity that requires users to stay in one room, for long periods of time, while wearing a cumbersome headset that blocks out the real world completely. Maintaining such stillness and isolation will be difficult for a lot of people. Can VR achieve a sufficiently compelling level of immersion (and perhaps utility) to encourage people to slow down and concentrate on one thing for a sustained period? And can people find a quiet place to sit without interruption – a place with reliable, high-quality, low-latency network access? Maybe. A self-driving car might do the trick.