The Year of Virtual Reality

Los Angeles CA - USA - August 29 2015: Virtual headset during VRLA Expo virtual reality exposition event at the Los Angeles Convention Center in Los Angeles.

Given the hype for virtual reality of late, one might think that this immersive form of reality is entirely new innovation. But the history of virtual reality (VR) goes back many years. For example, The respected computer scientist Ivan Sutherland experimented with what he called the Ultimate Display in 1965. Also, in the 1990s there was a growing interest and investment in VR but none of that went mainstream. Finally, in 2016 we are seeing some real progress in Virtual Reality. 2016 is the year of VR.

Here is a news report from Primetime Live from 1991:

It is funny to think back to 1991. The dominant PC was based on Intel 386 and the newer 486. The most used operating system was MS-DOS, while Windows 3.0 was gaining popularity. The closest you could get to a virtual reality experience was to go out and rent a VHS video tape and watch a movie.

It is not surprising that these early VR system never took off, they were crude and low performance, and the price tag was from 50-200 thousand dollars, not a very attractive consumer price point. This a classic example of adjacent possible: The technology was simply not ready. The computing power was not fast enough, displays were too crude and low res, and everything was still too expensive.

Why should we think it is different now? In a panel on virtual reality at Slush Play in Reykjavik in 2015, the main concern of the panellists was their worry that the current VR wave would be yet another disappointment. So many times had we seen hope for VR only to experience disappointment.

What is different now is that the enabling technologies seems to be ready. The required components are now mass-produced at low cost, thanks partly to the smartphone revolution. Even with low-end smartphone mounted headsets we are seeing promising experience. Thanks partly to video games, the processing power required is here.

Most people think VR is for games. But VR has two things that makes it so much more than video games. First, VR goes straight to your “lizard” brain. I tried Oculus Rift early in 2015 and in one scene I stood on top a skyscraper in New York. Looking down I saw traffic.  I knew I was safe in a room, but my brain sensed danger and nothing I did could change this. VR messes with your brain. Second, VR is much more than games, it can be so much more. Think movies, education and just any experience.

The main problem though is that a real immersive VR experience requires huge computing capacity. According to Bloomberg Business, only 1% of the PCs shipped in 2016 will be good enough to run VR. Facebook recommends for Oculus Rift, graphic cards NVIDIA GTX 970 or AMD 290 equivalent or greater, and CPU Intel i5-4590 equivalent or greater.

Despite this, there exist technology that is definitely ready for VR to work. While the cost is less than of the 1990s price tag, it is still expensive. That would suggest that rollout to consumers will be slow and might take years. But it could also be an opportunity for PC makes to sell VR-ready machines. In a smartphone obsessed market, this might be a welcome boost to PC makes. Also, if VR is so great as many people say, investing in the required hardware is a no-brainer.

Or could we even see the return of arcades again, now VR arcades? I doubt that, but looking back at computer history, if the technology works but is too expensive, economic models will be created to allow access. Examples are the time-sharing machines in the 1970s and the Video game arcades of 1980s.

The real danger though is lack of good content. We still need to figure out what works in VR. This is a classical question on every new platform to date. When the iPhone App Store became available it took some time to sort out what worked. Same with PCs, same with Windows, and any new major platform.

Given the amount of VR startups that presented at Slush in Helsinki in September 2015, we don’t have to worry about lack of interested parties with ideas for a killer app. The potential of VR is enormous, and it is well beyond video games. It still remains to be seen and 2016 is definitely the year of that VR gets a lot of attention.

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