In fall of 1995, I walked into my local video game store and beheld a spectacle of curious magnificence: The Virtual Boy, Nintendo’s first 32 bit VR console. Having been obsessed with virtual reality in all its bravado via Demolition Man, Lawnmower Man and Virtuosity (movies my parents didn’t need to know I had seen at the time) the concept of an in-home VR entertainment set blew my fragile teenage mind. I begged and pleaded with my parents to cough up the non-inflation adjusted $179, but they may have clairvoyantly sensed that it was a bad investment.
Fast forward to 2015, where the benchmark for my skepticism of all ostensible consumer VR products harks back to the Virtual Boy. Will new VR products succeed in bringing tangible virtual environments to the average human, or will they fail in the cacophony of other practical technologies? Will they enrich peoples’ lives through inspirational content and realistic animation, or will they tumble down the precipitous uncanny valley? Will they be consumer ready and attractively priced, or will they languish in developer kit purgatory or die a [near] death of preproduction exclusivity à la Google Glass v1 (new Glass patents have been recently filed…hmmm…)?
While only time will tell…that time is right now!
No one would argue with you that we already have the means for advanced visualization already available and most likely on your person at this very moment. Smart phones offer breathtaking resolution, insanely fast processing, and in most cases an open (or at least approachable) API for creating riveting stereoscopic VR content. There are already several products currently shipping on a consumer basis, including the Dodocase VR Pop-Up Viewer and the kitschier, less analog Zeiss VR One.
Of course the world knows that Facebook snatched up Oculus for a meager $2B, and while consumers may be aware that it’s not quite a commercial entity, that hasn’t stopped it from becoming the de facto HMD (head-mounted display) of referential preference. The word Oculus has in many ways replaced HMD or VR headset in the same way Coke replaced soda, or Kleenex to tissue (though I don’t think I’ve Xeroxed anything in some time).
Still, who knows how long momentum will last before they officially release a consumer version (announced for 2016), while competitors like Samsung (Gear VR) and HTC/Valve (SteamVR) vie for the same capricious market with tantalizingly designed headsets of their own. And let’s not forget Google Cardboard, Razor OSVR, and the speciously bleeding-edge Microsoft HoloLens. And who knows what the heck Magic Leap is working on?! Their latest teaser video showing an AR (augmented reality) office environment had enthusiasts and skeptics weeping with all the emotions.
Meanwhile, companies like Sensics and NVIS have had a stranglehold on the higher-end headset market in the military and vehicle design space, amongst others, for many years now. And with consumer sensors in the Kinect and Smart TVs, stereoscopic applications are only a pair of glasses away.
Yet still, consumer VR seems like a gossamer phenomenon until I can walk into my local electronics shoppe (the anachronistic spelling seems appropriate; who walks into shops anymore?) and grab a headset that streams attainable, believable, mainstream content directly into my eyeballs. With so much hullaballoo enveloping the concept of the “next big thing” in consumer media electronics, will the headset market solidify virtual reality zeitgeist? I think we have learned enough from the Virtual Boy to say that this time…it really will.