Stop me if you’ve heard this before: “Virtual reality is coming, and it’s going to be so cool! It’s going to change everything! It’s…”
OK, yes, you have heard it before. So much so that, like the neighbors of the little boy who cried “wolf,” you might not believe it anymore.
So you can be excused if you’re a bit dubious about new claims that virtual reality (VR) is just around the corner and will have all this compelling content and useful applications. Every time these claims have been made, the actual results have been disappointing at best and stomach-churning at worst.
VR’s Empty Promises
The term virtual reality has been knocking about for some time. The term was first coined in the 1980s, although research on VR systems and devices has been ongoing as far back as the 1960s. VR devices are designed to immerse the user in an alternate world, isolated from the real one, where all sensory inputs are provided by the device and a user can interact in some way with the virtual content. Ideally, a virtual environment provides the user with a 3-D view of the virtual world, with surround-sound audio and some way of tracking the user’s real position in space, modifying the user’s view accordingly.
There were a number of problems with early VR systems:
- Clumsy hardware. VR systems typically featured heavy, uncomfortable head-mounted devices that were connected by wires with large, powerful computers. This setup typically made sense only in the context of arcade-style games, where the hardware costs could be recouped one quarter at a time from users who would normally spend only a few minutes using it.
- Latency. Early VR systems often had latency problems, where there would be a delay in responding to a user’s inputs. For example, turning one’s head to see another part of the VR scene. This lag ruins the VR effect and can even cause disorientation and nausea in some users.
- High cost. Early VR systems were prohibitively expensive, and not something the typical household would buy.
- Poor content. VR systems suffered from unconvincing or incomplete graphics, making it difficult for the user to feel immersed in the VR setting.
As a result, there was very little uptake on these early systems, and VR research proceeded quietly for several years.
What’s Different Now—and the Same
VR has re-emerged recently, and appears to have improved to the point where it could finally see some traction in the hardware development, software development, content development, and user communities.
VR device hardware has improved dramatically, with lighter-weight headsets such as the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, along with better graphics and performance. These headsets are still expensive and must be paired with a high-end PC to reduce latency. Overall, this setup will run around $1,000 to $2,000—far below earlier VR systems, but still not a mass-market item.
A much less expensive alternative are headsets such as Google Cardboard—literally, a cardboard box: you strap one end to your smartphone and the other to your face, and run prepared VR content. The phone tracks your position to show you the right scene, and the lenses in the box trick you into perceiving the content in 3-D (similar to the Viewmaster toys of the 20th century).
The available content is still on the thin side, limited to non-interactive videos and some single-player games.
Two things must happen for VR to really take off:
- Further price reductions and performance improvement in the hardware. Headsets are still a bit bulky and could stand to be trimmed down for long-term user comfort.
- Truly interactive content, where multiple users can operate in the same virtual world. This will require some way for the system to track not only head movements, but also the user’s hands, so that the user can realistically pick up and manipulate virtual objects.
With these requirements met, VR can finally satisfy the promises that were made so long ago, and inspire applications that no one has even dreamed of yet. It may not be right around the corner, but we’re getting much closer now. Stay tuned…