The first VR headset was released in 1968 and it was dubbed the Sword of Damocles due to the way it loomed ominously over the user’s head. Ivan Sutherland’s enormous, unwieldy contraption looked more like a torture device than a means of entertainment. Yet it offered the human race a glimpse of a brave new world that was exhilarating and terrifying in equal parts, and VR technology was expected to quickly become the norm.
However, progress has been extremely stunted since 1968. After decades of relative stagnation, VR enthusiasts received a significant boost in 2016, when a wave of headsets began to emerge. They now look more like oversized goggles than giant torture chambers, and there is finally a significant amount of competition among rival developers, which is sparking long overdue growth.
A long way to go
However, VR headsets remain niche. Research firm IDC expects 7.6 million virtual reality and augmented reality headsets to be sold across the globe in 2019, the vast majority of which will be VR. That is up from 5.9 million in 2018, but it is still tiny when compared to smartphones, consoles, smart speakers and other mainstream devices.
That is despite significant improvements to the technology over the past few years. Facebook-owned firm Ocuulus released the Rift to great fanfare in 2016 and it certainly represented a huge step in the right direction, but it cost $599, it had to be connected to an expensive PC and it required special sensors placed around the room.
This year the Oculus Quest hit the market for just $399 and it signalled a new age for VR, as it does not require a smartphone or gaming PC to provide great experiences. There is no need for additional equipment, external sensors and a mind-numbing set-up process as you can simply begin enjoying the standalone headset with a couple of minutes. It is not perfect, as there is light leakage and the battery only last for two hours, but it is a great leap forward.
Powerful headsets emerge
Anyone with a larger budget can check out a device like the $999 Valve Index, a supremely powerful headset featuring the widest field of view yet. It requires a high-end PC, it is expensive and it has painful setup times and update processes, but it is certainly an exciting piece of technology.
However, sales are still low. Facebook’s chief technology officer, Mike Schroepfer, believes the issue is a lack of content, while he admits the price is prohibitive for many people. “We know if we can make it cheaper more will use it,” he told CNN Business this week. “Do people enjoy it? Absolutely. Do we have the breadth of content yet to entice them to buy it for home? For a certain audience, absolutely; for the broadest audience, not yet. But we’re working on it.”
His honesty is refreshing, and he makes a good point. VR is supposed to take the user from a grimy London Underground station to a beach in the Maldives in the blink of an eye. Optimistic analysts believe it can spark world peace, eradicate poverty and homelessness, spell and end to loneliness and isolation and wipe out pain and suffering, while emerging as the dominant means of entertainment, education and business collaboration. Yet right now its uses are limited to games, tours and a handful of other experiences.
A VR arms race
Virtual reality will only become the norm when the technology improves significantly, mass production brings the costs down and the breadth of content increases. Yet there is every reason to think those boxes will be ticked off in the next 20 years, as the leading tech firms on the planet are now working on it. Facebook, Sony, Samsung, Google and more are now locked in a VR arms race, and that should ensure huge advancements in the next two decades.
The devices need to reach a resolution of 10,200 by 7,800 pixels for each eye and a field of view of more than 220 degrees in order to make VR indistinguishable from reality, according to the experts. Developers have the potential to achieve that in 20 years or less, while the next generation of wearable technology will make today’s clunky headsets look like Sutherland’s Sword of Damocles.
The end of smartphones
VR, AR and mixed reality will remove our need to look at screens, and XR contact lenses and lightweight AR glasses will come to the fore. We will eventually reach a lifelike level of graphics quality, and the arrival of 5G can eradicate the need for PCs, push everything onto the cloud and allow VR to be consumed on the go, all the time.
Gaming will be transformed. The current titles requiring a mouse, keyboard and controller will become obsolete. The world’s most popular esports, as listed at Unikrn, will need to be adapted to take advantage of improvements in VR and AR technology. It should make competitive gaming a lot more exciting and visually arresting, blowing traditional sports out of the water. Gaming will become by far and away the largest form of entertainment, but VR will also revive things like the theatre and the cinema, while providing a new and innovative environment for social interactions to take place in.
Right now, we are only scratching the surface of what is possible, and we should expect some huge leaps in the years ahead. Within 20 years, VR use will be as common as smartphone use is today, while smartphones will eventually die out.
Wave goodbye to reality
Before long, we will be spending more time in VR than in real life, but rather than making us more isolated, it can bring us together. Rather than physically travelling places, we can communicate with people in VR.
There are a number of fears about VR creating a bleak dystopian future, but if harnessed correctly it could improve society in a number of different ways, and it is highly likely to become the norm within the next two decades.