The second coming

Having flopped in the 1990s, virtual reality will attempt a comeback in 2016

Mon Nov 02 2015


Anyone who doubts the power of virtual reality (VRshould experience a game called “Don’t Let Go” while wearing an Oculus Rift headset—a pair of high-tech goggles which transport you into a realistic three-dimensional world. To play the game you sit at a desk, put on the headset and headphones, and hold down two keys on the keyboard of a laptop in front of you. You then find yourself in the game’s three-dimensional virtual world, where you are also sitting at a desk, holding down keys on a laptop. As you turn your head and look around your virtual office you can see your virtual arms in front of you. The result is a strong sense of “embodiment”: you consider the virtual body you inhabit in the game world to be your own physical self.

Then the fun begins, as a series of horrible things appear to exploit this perception. The room fills with buzzing wasps; a dinosaur walks in and roars at you; knives fall from the ceiling and embed themselves in the desk, narrowly missing your hands; a huge spider appears from behind the laptop’s screen and crawls up one of your arms into your ear; and so on. If at any stage you let go of either of the keys you are holding down, the game ends and you lose. It may not sound frightening on paper, but it is difficult to resist the urge to swat the wasps or brush off the spider, so realistic is the illusion of the virtual room. This is just one of many examples of the immersive power of virtual reality—a technology that flopped in the 1990s, but will make a comeback in 2016.

What has changed? Convincingly rendering a realistic 3D world requires three things: high-resolution screens, motion sensors and plenty of processing power. The screens show slightly different images to each eye, to give the illusion of depth. The motion sensors monitor the movement of the wearer’s head so that the images can be adjusted accordingly as the field of view changes. Doing that quickly enough to seem realistic (and not cause nausea) needs lots of computing muscle. Twenty years ago, when VR was first touted as the next big thing, the technology wasn’t up to the task. Today it is, because—as luck would have it—all three of those things can be found inside smartphones, which are becoming steadily cheaper and more powerful. “We like to call these benefits to areas outside of smartphones the ‘peacetime dividends’ of the smartphone war,” says Kyle Russell of Andreessen Horowitz, a venture-capital firm that invested in Oculus.

Another big difference this time around is that the giants of the computer industry are sold on the idea. They think VRwill be the next big shift in the way people will interact with computers, after PCs and smartphones. Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, reckons that “immersive 3D content is the obvious next thing after video.” His company bought Oculus in 2014 for $2 billion. Google supports VR in several of its products and is backing a secretive new company called Magic Leap (see A magic leap), while Microsoft, having been left behind in smartphones, is making a strong push into “augmented reality” (AR), VR’s cousin.

Commercial reality

But is this just tech-industry hype, or is there real demand for VR products? The answer will start to become clear in 2016, as a barrage of them fight for consumers’ attention—and disposable income. The biggest splash will be caused by the release of the Oculus Rift headset, which will go on sale early in 2016, having previously been available only as a “development kit” for programmers. Sony will probably launch its own headset, for use with its PlayStation 4 games console, at around the same time. HTC, a Taiwanese firm, is another contender, with a headset called Vive. And Samsung, the world’s leading smartphone-maker, has already launched an updated version of its Gear VR, an adaptor that turns a large-screen smartphone into a VR headset.

The immediate focus will be on gaming, for which VR is a natural fit. Keen gamers regularly upgrade their hardware to stay at the cutting edge, notes Mr Russell, so they are most likely to fork out the $300 or so that a VR headset will cost. The use of VR in industry, for training and visualisation, may also become more widespread. And more people will dabble with the technology using a simple $10 cardboard adaptor, aptly called Cardboard, that turns any smartphone into a simple VR headset. Plenty of VR apps, games and videos are already available, and documentary-makers, artists, publishers and advertising agencies will no doubt provide further examples during 2016.

The question is where VRgoes next. It is reminiscent of the web in 1994: promising, but primitive. But there is also a sense that, like smartphones a decade ago, VR is not quite ready for mass adoption.

The innovation that turned smartphones from geeky toys into the most successful consumer products of all time was Apple’s addition of a touch-screen. Today’s VR headsets, like pre-iPhone smartphones, are clunky, unwieldy things. Someday VR headsets may be like sunglasses or headphones—small enough to carry everywhere, so they can be pulled out of a bag when needed. But the control systems needed to interact with virtual worlds also need refinement. And perhaps AR will overtake VR, just as smartphones overtook the “personal digital assistants” that preceded them. What is certain is that wider adoption of VR will stimulate faster development of the technology, which is why 2016 will be a pivotal year.

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