Virtual Reality seems to be all over technology news recently, and great predictions seem to be coming about regarding this for the coming year. What a lot of people don’t know is that this isn’t actually the first time VR has been deemed ‘the next big thing’. There was another wave in the 90s, and we will look at why this failed and how it can be different this time around. But before we delve deeper into that let’s look at what Virtual Reality actually means.
First, we must ask ourselves what ‘reality’ is. Reality is our perception of the world. How do we conduct this perception? Through our senses. We all know that we have five main senses: sight, smell, taste, touch and hearing. Each of these senses absorbs information we receive through stimuli all around us. A combination of this sensory stimuli is what our brains evaluate in order to make sense of what is happening, our ‘reality’.
It stands to reason then, that if you can present your senses with fabricated stimuli, your brain will be unable to distinguish this from actual stimuli, and therefore your perception of reality would change in response to it. This is the concept of ‘virtual reality’. It is an illusion, much like when you are immersed in a dream. Of course, the stimuli has to be realistic enough to convince your brain that it is actually reality – this was actually one of the reasons why the previous VR wave was labelled a ‘flop’.
How is VR achieved?
In modern society, computers are the basis of VR. They have already begun to make this world possible to the consumer. Many organisations are coming up with headsets, gaming systems, and more. For example, HTC have recently upgraded their already existing Vive VR headset for 2016. Chief Executive Cher Wang stated at the CES (Consumer Electronics Show) Tech Show “For too long, the promise of virtual reality has been little more than a promise… Today we stand on the precipice of a new era. Vive is creating a world where the only limit is human imagination.”
The Reality of Virtual Reality
This ‘new era’ sounds great, but is it really going to take off the way the techies want us to believe?
As I mentioned earlier, this is actually not the first VR wave to hit the technology sector. There was a great hype about this prospect in the 90s, but it did not take off. Why? Well, there were several reasons but the main one was that the technology simply wasn’t there. Screen resolutions were too low to be a realistic immersion in the virtual world. For example Nintendo’s release of Virtual Boy was at a peak time of optimism and expectation for VR; however, just one year later it was removed from production. One of the influencing factors was that the graphics were only available in red! In addition, computing power was too weak in the 90s. In fact, one of the biggest problems was a prominence of headaches and nausea, undoubtedly brought about by these low screen resolutions and slow responses.
Will it be different this time around? The technology has certainly progressed and is as ready as you think it could be, with high screen resolutions and quicker than ever computing speeds. It is said that computing technology is now 1,000 times more powerful than in 1993! However, other problems still stand – products are likely to be expensive, clunky and unattractive, as well as possibly still inducing headaches and straining of the eyes.
All the right signs of intent are there though, with some of the largest organisations in the world getting involved, such as Google and HTC, or Facebook’s 2014 $2billion acquisition of VR headset company Oculus. Again, this could be a bit of a hit and miss, with the release of the Oculus Rift facing great criticism for its $600 price tag! Costing more than an actual gaming console, and twice as much as the original development kit, it is dangerously close to being universally branded as a ‘one percenter’s toy’ being for the techie gamers only. This prevalent problem does seem to exist across most VR applications, but not all.
In 2014 Google released their Google Cardboard. I know what you’re thinking; that sounds cheap. You’re right, it is cheap! An extremely cheap VR option once you compare it to its competitors. The Cardboard consists simply of cardboard, a couple of lenses, and Velcro or tape. For such a DIY product, it is actually known to give a great taste of VR on a very tight budget. However, it is only that: a taste. The quality is obviously nowhere near the likes of Oculus Rift or HTC Vive, and there is much limited functionality. For those on the fence, it is perfect to dip your feet in and test the world of VR for next to no cost.
The Rise of Augmented Reality
Virtual Reality (VR) seems unable to shrug off its biggest rival, Augmented Reality (AR). This is something that has found more success in the consumer space compared to VR and we’ve seen many applications along with video game and hardware devices, such as the Google Glass.
What is it? AR is a sort of blend between VR and real life. Developers create images within applications that blend in with contents in the real world. Users can interact with virtual contents in the real world and are able to distinguish between the two. For example, with AR you can hang a virtual Mona Lisa next to your existing Picasso collection in your living room. Controversial, right?
Microsoft came out with an unexpected AR application, the Hololens. You may remember one of the adverts where an average Joe views his Minecraft empire in on his living room coffee table. Microsoft appears to be trying to get the best of both worlds (VR and AR), with a wide field of vision associated with VR and a transparent display surface suitable for AR – this transparency also allows for slightly lower resolution and image quality. The fact of the matter is, AR is currently more successful than VR and has more existing applications, simply because VR requires greater technological development.
They say life is what you make of it. Well, with Virtual Reality it certainly is! Will this wave of VR finally fulfil expectations? Or is this all just simply too much, too soon?