Virtual reality as a buzzword feels as though it’s been around forever, despite never truly having taken off. Attempts to popularise it over the last 20-or-so years have launched to much fanfare, but generally failed to live up to the hype.
Fast-forward to now, and with a new generation of VR technology available – from the £5 build-it-yourself Google Cardboard to the £500+ Oculus Rift and HTC Valve – is VR finally about to make its mainstream breakthrough?
We believe it is, and we’re not alone, as the $2BN value of Facebook’s Oculus VR acquisition suggests. But why is this time different? Let’s take a quick look back at how VR tech has evolved, to show why the kit we’re seeing today is mature enough to take this previously niche area to something that transforms all our lives.
A brief history of virtual reality
Virtual reality is where you step into and interact with an artificial, computer-generated environment in a way that tricks your brain into believing it’s real. It’s experienced through some form of immersive technology, most commonly a headset with a screen (or screens), speakers and various motion sensors built into it.
Immersive headsets first appeared in the 1960s, with early models each pioneering different elements of what we now see in modern versions. The first was a head-mounted display to watch films: the Telesphere Mask. This was followed by the Headsight, a headset that displayed a live feed from a video camera on its screens. Motion sensors in the Headsight meant the wearer could control the camera, enabling them to look around the camera’s environment as though they were actually there.
But it was in 1968, when Ivan Sutherland unveiled his Sword of Damocles system, that we saw the true precursor of modern-day VR: a headset with motion sensors, linked to computer systems that could create and update a virtual world (admittedly, a rudimentary one, by today’s standards) in real time.
Fast forward to the late 1980s and the term ‘virtual reality’ was born, widely credited to Jaron Lanier. His company went on to develop various VR products, such as the EyePhone series (buying one would have set you back $9,000 – that’s over $18,000/£13,500 in today’s money).
By this point, some clearly believed that technology was sufficiently advanced and affordable to enable VR to succeed in the consumer market. Game console giants Sega and Nintendo launched their own VR offerings in the 1990s (the Sega VR and Virtual Boy, since you asked). However, neither was a commercial success and both were discontinued relatively quickly.
Why today’s VR tech is ready for the mainstream
In essence, the reason early consumer VR devices didn’t take off was because the hardware wasn’t capable of delivering the truly immersive experience people wanted or expected for the price. And that’s where today’s technology is different, because we now have the processing power to generate and display genuinely immersive virtual worlds.
Moreover, with Google Cardboard costing less than two cups of takeaway coffee, VR is no longer just the domain of enthusiasts – anyone with a smartphone can now try it for very little financial outlay. Even higher-end kit such as the Oculus Rift of HTC Valve, while not in impulse-buy land, is far from out of reach – and like with most technology, prices may well fall over time.
How virtual reality could change our lives
Couple technology that’s now capable and affordable with some truly valuable uses for VR, and you see that everything is coming together for it to finally deliver on its decades of promise.
In healthcare, for example, VR can be used for individual or team training, enabling doctors and other clinicians to develop skills from diagnosis to full surgery in a realistic environment, with no risk to real patients. VR also gets used to treat phobias.
Product designers, engineers and architects can combine 3D modelling technology with VR to explore their designs and identify potential issues, without the expense of creating physical models or prototypes.
VR can be used to bring current or past world events to life (see the New York Times’s nytvr initiative), enabling people to experience things as though they’re actually there, or to explore locations and objects in ways they wouldn’t otherwise be able to.
Then there are the gaming and other entertainment possibilities: how about experiencing the thrill of being in the front row of a concert or major sporting event but without leaving your sofa?