Tuesday, October 17, 2017
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The Future of VR

VR. Experiencing a different reality. Something that humans have dreamed about for thousands of years. The supposed modern solution is a head mounted display (HMD), a set of heavy, expensive goggles that play images through their lenses. However, many are unsatisfied with their quality, accessibility, and comfort.

Although ideas similar to virtual reality have existed since early civilizations, the first recorded attempt was in the 1900s in the form of a painting. The panoramic painting, or the 360-degree mural, surrounded the viewer and made it seem that they were in the scene depicted. [1] Another idea was the stereoscopic viewer, where two images would be put side by side in two lenses that were worn as goggles. It created a sense of depth, but not much else.

The idea for modern virtual reality was the basis for short story Pygmalion’s Spectacles by Stanley Grauman Weinbaum in 1935. The story suggests of goggles with stories recorded onto them. The stories were viewed through lenses and a mouthpiece, creating a sensation of sight, sound, and smell. [2]

Then, in the 1950s, cinematographer Morton Heilig created the “Sensorama”, which was a large device that looked like an arcade cabinet that had a viewing compartment. It filled the viewer’s field of vision and also reproduced smell, vibration, and the feeling of wind on one’s face. {3} However, the device was expensive and difficult to sell due to lack of demand. In 1962, Heilig created another invention: the Telesphere Mask. It looked much like a modern VR headset. [4] During the next thirty or so years, various VR products appeared with uses from viewing cities to military applications and flight simulation.

In the 1990s, many VR headsets were released for arcades and home consoles, with the Nintendo Virtual Boy being a particularly infamous example. Released in 1996, it was one of the first to have true 3D graphics, but it was extremely expensive for a home console at $180 ($290 in today’s money) and was a complete failure. By contrast, a console today, with much more processing power and a wider array of game selection, costs that much. The graphics were in red and black only to make development cheaper. Furthermore, many developers simply didn’t want to spend the effort to port games to a VR system. Another problem was that the headset caused headaches and was uncomfortable to wear. The Virtual Boy was discontinued after one year of disappointing sales. [5]

A large issue with early attempts at digital VR was latency – the delay between a user’s input and what is displayed on screen, which would often make users feel nauseous. [6]

The Oculus Rift, which started as a prototype in the early 2010s, solved this after a couple of years. The latency was removed and users could move their head and their virtual surroundings would adjust accordingly. This was a giant breakthrough in VR technology. It meant that VR had reached its original goal – to create a virtual world that seemed real. The Rift employed many technological innovations to achieve “realism”—a quick display and a large field of view. The Oculus Rift used AMOLED screens, which could change extremely quickly to remove latency. A large field of view also helped immerse the user in the environment and convince the brain that it was really experiencing what it saw.

However, a main problem that the VR industry faces is the high price. The Oculus without accessories costed around $600, which is extremely expensive for a device that most would use only for gaming. [7] Furthermore, the HTC Vive, another leading VR gaming headset, costs $599. It also required a powerful computer to use.[8]

By contrast, an Xbox One S costs only $289. [9] This means that if a consumer wanted to buy a gaming console (which has become a major use of VR), they would not be willing to spend an extra $300 for VR.

A proposed solution to the cost issue is smartphone VR, which uses a smartphone attached to a viewing device. A popular example of this is the Samsung Gear, released in 2015 and developed with help from Oculus. [10] These types of headsets are often relatively cheap—the Gear costs $99. However, smartphone VR headsets have all the flaws that smartphones have. There will often be limited choices of applications and games, but VR is catching on in smartphone application stores. Smartphone battery is also drained quickly and a dirty screen can be very annoying. Despite these drawbacks, smartphone headsets are promising as a cheap VR option.

Oculus is attempting to solve the problem of cost by creating cheaper but lower quality VR headsets, such as the Pacific, which will be released in 2018 and is supposed to cost $200. [11] However, if this price is kept, the Pacific will likely be less powerful than a smartphone. For customers, paying $200 is probably not going to be very appealing when they can just by a smartphone headset for $100 that is compatible with the smartphone that they already have. For others, using a smartphone as a VR gaming device is not appealing, either, due to limited game selection and processing power.

The future of VR seems uncertain. Without more accessible VR options that still retain enough power to create an immersive and entertaining experience, the VR industry, after years of constant advancement, may be at a standstill for the time being.


[1] https://www.vrs.org.uk/virtual-reality/history.html

[2] http://www.gutenberg.org/files/22893/22893-h/22893-h.htm

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Morton_Heilig

[4] http://www.techradar.com/news/wearables/forgotten-genius-the-man-who-made-a-working-vr-machine-in-1957-1318253/2

[5] https://www.fastcompany.com/3050016/unraveling-the-enigma-of-nintendos-virtual-boy-20-years-later

[6] https://www.wired.com/2014/05/oculus-rift-4/

[7] https://www.oculus.com/    

[8] https://www.cnet.com/products/htc-vive-review/

[9] https://www.cnet.com/products/microsoft-xbox-one-s/


 [11] https://www.engadget.com/2017/07/13/oculus-wireless-vr-pacific/