In 2016, the first of the current generation of home consumer VR products were released for purchase. Following a few years of intense research and development, a revolution in smartphone hardware, and a few developer product releases, we finally got our hands on the first viable home VR systems.
VR has, however, been attempted several times before; each time failing in a spectacular way, at least in terms of consumer products. So it’s natural that many people are predicting that this time will be no different – that VR is doomed to fail yet again because in the end it’s just too niche.
Those of us who believe in the current VR revolutions believed in the potential of VR even back when it failed decisively. This time feels different, however, and I think that VR is finally going to achieve the mainstream status that’s always been its potential.
That’s a bold claim, I know, so in this article I’m going to talk about some of the reasons I think this time will be different for VR. A big part of doing that is looking at the reasons VR has failed before and how this new generation of technology is doing things differently.
A Weight off Your Shoulders
The first and most obvious reason that VR can now work as something the average person would want to buy is that the physical hardware is much, much smaller than it was in the 80s and 90s. There was a reason VR was mainly something consumed in video game arcades or at theme parks – the machines were just so darn big!
The primitive computing hardware used to drive these early VR systems were huge, and the headsets were often so big that they needed to be supported with wires or by other means. The average human neck would not have stood up to the weight. Now we have mobile VR systems that are no heavier than a pair of diving goggles, and that’s with all the computing hardware onboard. We also have advanced, high-end VR goggles that tether to a computer with a thin cable. The Oculus headset, as one example, only weighs 470g; that’s a negligible load on your neck. I own an Oculus and get bored before I get a sore neck.
The computers themselves, as we all probably know, have also become tiny compared to the early days. These days you can even get VR-certified laptops that only weigh a kilogram or two. Hewlett Packard has even created a “backpack computer” that lets you walk around free from wires for industrial VR training. In just a few short years the VR hardware might be no bigger than a pair of glasses as the electronics and display components become even smaller.
No More Sickness
Previous generations of VR systems were very prone to causing motion sickness in people who were subjected to them. There are a few reasons for this, but it boils down to those VR systems sending conflicting information to the brain about the speed and position of your virtual body.
Your brain constructs a spatial map of the world around you and your position in it from all the signals coming from your various senses. If what your eyes see don’t match up to what the motion sensors in your ears are saying, it can be disorienting and make you feel unwell.
The same mechanism is behind seasickness and car sickness. In VR, this mainly happens because of latency. In other words, when you turn your head and the visuals take a second (or even a fraction of a second) to catch up to that movement, you may be reaching for the barf bag pretty quickly.
Modern VR systems have essentially solved this problem. First of all, products like the Vive or Oculus Rift have been designed from the ground up to have as little latency as possible. That’s harder than it sounds when you take into account how much data has to be sent and received almost instantaneously. That’s why the companies that make these headsets have determined the minimum performance required to process everything quickly enough.
When you have all the right hardware, looking around feels completely natural, and for most people that propensity towards sickness is basically a thing of the past.
It’s Getting Cheaper Already
When the requirements for a good VR experience were published in 2016, many people balked at how expensive the computer you’d need to drive it all would be. Already that first set of requirements has been slashed, partly because Oculus has managed to make the software component more efficient and has developed some tricks to keep the performance up on lower specification. The second big reason the cost of premium VR has dropped by so much is that a graphics technology revolution happened. The current GPU king Nvidia released its 10-series GPUs and they represented an almost two-generation jump in technology. Suddenly the mainstream card (the GTX 1050) had enough power to meet the minimum for VR. Not only this, but these chips were cool and power-efficient enough to go into laptops in an unadulterated form. So now portable premium VR is also perfectly possible.
The Content is Here
The last time VR tried to make headway, it was in the age of the Super Nintendo and the Sega Genesis. 3D graphics were barely starting to make their way into the arcade and you could basically forget about it on home computing systems, with only rudimentary 3D games and applications available there.
Even if VR were comfortable and cheap, there just wasn’t anything particularly compelling to do with it. The design of interactive software was in its infancy and not the well-honed Hollywood-challenging entity it is today. If you bought a VR system today you’d have no trouble finding content for it. Not only that, but you could buy content that you would actually want to experience. From simulators to video games to musical concerts, there’s something for everyone in VR, and developers are only just getting started.
The World is Social and Connected
It’s no accident that the social media giant Facebook bought up Oculus while it was still a baby. Even in the early 2000s, few people would have predicted the rise and popularity of social media. Billions of people love to interact socially online every day, spending hours every week ogling what other people are doing and saying. If you ask Facebook, they’d say the future of online social interaction and VR are inseparable. With applications like Facebook Spaces, VR has a purpose beyond being a curiosity. It’s a way to feel close to other human beings, albeit in a virtual 3D space. There’s no denying that in this modern era, “social” sells.
The Time is Now
Nothing is ever certain, but this time it really looks like VR is here to stay. There are plenty of uses for it, the cost is coming down rapidly, and it’s actually pleasant to experience. If it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen now.