Last week I took part in a scientific experiment which took place in the virtual world. With a virtual reality (VR) headset on, I was instructed to walk back and forth through a room without hitting the virtual obstacles. This was my second encounter with the technology and again I was absolutely amazed by the strangeness and realness of the experience. Even though the technology is far from perfect, it really has the potential to disrupt our view on reality as we know it. Due to the wide-reaching opportunities the technology brings, it has received a lot of attention in a range of industries. It is used by gamers, teachers, astronauts, architects, neuroscientists, clinical psychologists, the army and the list goes on. So why has it taken so long to become popular and what will the future bring?
VR is a computer-generated simulation of an environment. Once users put on their VR headsets, they become fully emerged in a digital world including 360-degree views. It sort of tricks the brain in thinking it’s somewhere else, like mental teleportation. The “newness” of this storytelling medium is that we no longer look at something, like watching a movie, a play, a video game etc. Instead we become immersed in the experience, allowing us to live within the story. See for example this 360-degree VR film about the 16 year old Layla who has autism and explains what it’s like for her to attend a birthday party. The viewer really gets a sense of how overwhelming such a situation can be for someone with autism and hence it raises awareness and understanding in a novel and intriguing way.
Development in terms of computer speed, better display options and user-friendly software have made VR more widely accessible and affordable in the last couple of years. A headset used to cost ten of thousands of dollars but is now available for around $500. Hence, VR is no longer restricted to scientific laboratories and commercial companies are eagerly trying to penetrate this promising market. Mark Zuckerberg for example, made a huge bet on the technology with his purchase of Oculus VR for more than $2 billion! NY Times reports that the Facebook founder has plans to invest another $3 billion over the next decade or so with the aim to bring VR to millions of users. However, Zuckerberg thinks that “…good virtual reality isn’t fully there yet. It’s going to take five or ten more years of development before we get to where we all want to go.” So why is this the case?
At the moment, VR is predominantly used by early adopters. Those who firmly believe in the technology and are happy to put down a significant amount of money for something that isn’t quite there yet. So what are some of the main problems?
The current headsets are large and heavy and listening to audio requires additional headphones. Besides that, most headsets are connected with a large cord which you can easily trip over (seeing that you cannot actually see where it is in the virtual world). After a while you get pretty tired of having the devise on your head and most users just end up removing it after half an hour or so. Not really a recipe for success.
If you’ve tried a VR headset you will know how pixelated the image usually looks. Consumers are used to high resolution images and won’t settle for anything less. Increasing the level of clarity of VR will be one of the biggest improvements to the technology. However, a 360 high definition view requires a lot of processing power and enormous amounts of data which places a large restriction on what’s currently doable. To make virtual reality seem like, you know, virtual reality, it has to look real.
As mentioned above, high definition views are the next step, but this requires cameras with extremely high resolutions or alternatively a whole bunch of separate cameras (which is what is currently used). This results in most of the content being pretty mediocre. This is definitely a challenge for both technology developers and content producers.
You can’t just buy the VR hardware pack and assume it’ll work. Setting it all up actually requires a bit of tech-savviness. If VR companies want this technology to become widely adopted, it really needs to become extremely user-friendly.
Like many other disrupting technologies, it takes time for all the little elements to come together so that the product adds significant value to people’s lives. Remember the Nokia3310? Didn’t you think that was a pretty cool phone back then? It could even “take a picture”, which was actually more like a blurry impression of what was in front of you. Well that wasn’t thaaaat long ago (ok maybe it was a bit) and look where we are now. The current problem with VR isn’t a lack of innovation or investment, it’s just that these things take time.