2016 Year of Virtual Reality – Possibilities, Options and Concerns
Virtual Reality: It’s Almost Here (For Real!)
In case you haven’t heard, big things are afoot in the world of virtual reality. With dozens of companies developing hardware, content, and applications, the buzz has really been building. A few devices, games, and apps are already on the market, and a handful of these are almost ready to make the move out of the electronics shows and into the public forum.
In addition to virtual reality, augmented reality software is also generating lots of excitement. And, the buzz isn’t relegated to just tech heads and gamers — with a recent cover story in American publication TIME Magazine, VR is definitely mainstream. If things go according to plan, 2016 could be the year that the masses finally take to VR.
Didn’t We Already Do This?
If you’re scratching your head and thinking this all feels like déjá vu, well, you’re right. We went through a wave of VR hype 20 years ago, only to not get any sort of commercially viable VR product or application. Why should we believe the hype now? What’s different?
In a word, everything. The technology is more advanced, more affordable, and more accessible. There are more well-thought-out applications for this technology. And, thanks to the ubiquity of mobile devices, people have a good part of the technology to make VR useful in their back pockets. The world may have been ready for VR 20 years ago, but VR wasn’t ready for the world.
Now, however, VR is ready.
Virtual Reality – Practical Applications
What makes virtual reality so cool is that it’s a fully immersive experience. Devices are able to detect the movements of your head, your body, and even your eyes, then adjust the digitally rendered artificial environment accordingly. The result is that your brain thinks that the virtual reality is actual reality (or actuality, if you will), and what can be done with this immersion is practically limitless.
Truly, there’s so much that we can do with this technology, and it will be exciting to see where else developers take it. Here’s what’s different industries are currently pursuing:
1. VR Games
There are games, of course — there are always games. But there are also some with educational uses; VR can put you in space, in Pompeii as Mount Vesuvius is erupting, hundreds of feet below the surface of the Atlantic, or in the middle of the battlefield at Waterloo, just to name a few. Talk about living history — VR can give you a (virtually) firsthand look at what happened and potentially change how we learn about the world around us and the world before us.
2. Virtual Reality Education
Educational technology is a growing field, and it makes a lot of sense: we can use all of these devices to enlighten the next generations, and kids love to tinker with anything that looks and feels like a video game. Google is already running its totally free Expeditions Program to give students VR access to all sorts of places they can’t go on a school bus: the coral reefs, Macchu Picchu, and even the surface of Mars.
In addition, companies like PublicVR, EON Reality, and Immersive VR Education Ltd. are all working on educational VR applications. And, for college bound students, there’s the potential for virtual college tours, allowing individuals to get a feel for a campus without ever leaving their homes.
3. VR in Movies and Entertainment
The line between interactive movies and video games is shifting and unclear, but suffice it to say that there’s room for both. Immersive 360 degree movies from companies like VRFilms may not lend themselves to the lazy date activity of Netflix and chill, but for solo watching, they’re much more enveloping and engaging than the standard flicks we’re used to.
Also, Oculus Rift is on board with a number of studios to develop VR movie content. And of course, there’s (ahem) adult entertainment in VR as well. Isn’t there always?
4. VR Travel
Branching off from educational uses of VR is virtual travel. (Travel is educational, right?); AR apps already exist that can provide you with full identifying information about surrounding landmarks simply by pointing your smartphone camera at them.
Perhaps a more useful application for travel lies in AR technology rather than VR. Currently available apps like Google Goggles, Wikitude, Lonely Planet, Waalkz, and others use your smartphone camera to show you what’s around you and augment what you see with helpful details. When used right, AR can make you feel like you’ve got a map, a tour guide, and a culture critic travelling alongside you.
Marriott is perhaps one of the bigger names out of the gate with their VR Postcards initiative. Guests at participating hotels (currently New York and London) can request a Samsung VR kit, with which they can experience short VR travelogues in a few different locations.
And just imagine the possibilities with virtual travel: being able to walk through Angkor Wat, climb the Eiffel Tower, dive through to the Titanic, go to space! To experience all that from the comfort of your own living room.
5. VR in Marketing
You’d better believe that companies are currently working on ways to sell you products and services using VR. One of the biggest trends here is to create a virtual showroom, which allows a participant to be immersed in a brand’s ideal retail space. What’s more, the technology can track things like eye movement and linger time to provide the brand with feedback on what products are the most eye catching, what height is ideal for displaying products, and so on.
A number of other uses are already in development. Car companies like Hyundai have demonstrated VR driving experiences at trade shows, and Australian insurance company NRMA has given show attendees the chance to experience a car crash firsthand, thanks to VR technology.
6. Virtual Reality Training – Military, Driving and more
Whether it’s for military or civilian applications, immersing trainees in a well-designed and highly realistic virtual environment can allow for full training just about anywhere. The US Army has been using its Dismounted Soldier VR training system for combat soldiers for several years already.
VirTra is an Arizona-based company that creates VR training modules for both military personnel and law enforcement officials. And, both the RAF and the US Air Force is using VR pilot training simulations.
Drivers can also take advantage of VR driver training to get some practice behind the wheel without actually getting behind the wheel. Toyota has developed a simulator for the Oculus Rift called TeenDrive365, and as the name implies, it’s aimed at new teen drivers to teach them about distracted driving. It’s still in development, but then again, so is the Rift. Finally, a company out of Virginia called Drive Square has a VR simulation system that allows new drivers to gain experience in an real car without actually going on the road.
7. Virtual Reality in Medicine
Perhaps one of the most practical uses for VR technology, the medical field has an increasing number of researchers who are pioneering new ways to heal using virtual reality. For example, the Medical Virtual Reality group at the University of Southern California Institute for Creative Technologies is looking at ways to use VR tech to reduce PTSD, improve mental health, aid in cognitive and motor skills rehab, and more. The University of Louisville is looking at virtual reality therapy to help individuals who suffer from anxiety disorders and related phobias.
Medical applications for individuals with autism are also being explored at the University of Texas at Dallas. Finally, at Stanford University, VR is being used to develop surgical simulations so that doctors and medical students can practice techniques in a highly realistic yet low risk environment.
8. Virtual Reality Art
Of the Oculus Rift applications that people have had the opportunity to check out, one that’s garnered consistent positive reactions is Tilt Brush. This is a VR program that allows users to paint their surroundings using 3D tools, and it’s just plain fun. If you remember the joy you used to feel at just messing around with Microsoft Paint on Windows XP, Tilt Brush will let you feel it again in full VR splendour.
There are also applications for touring art museums and seeing great works in a VR space. While this use can bring up all sorts of Walter Benjamin-esque questions about authenticity, aura, and virtual reproduction, it’s still a more immersive method than looking at photos or watching videos for experiencing great art. The British Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art have already experimented with VR, and there’s a Museum of Stolen Art application (which is exactly what it sounds like) for Oculus Rift.
9. VR Sports
Using VR for sports endeavours probably won’t help you get in shape, but it can be both fun and beneficial for real athletes and armchair athletes alike. For professionals, StriVR Labs has developed a VR training application for American football that four NFL teams used in preparation for the current season. EON Sports has also been working on VR coaching and training programs for professionals and amateurs, such as baseball lessons with former MLB star Jason Giambi.
As for the rest of us who are mere spectators, there’s been some experimentation with watching matches in live VR, but so far, the poor quality has made for a lacklustre experience. Look for improvements in this in the coming years, though. Turning sports into a VR-based game has more potential to be successful first, as suggested by Frame Interactive’s Headmaster football (or soccer) game for Sony’s Project Morpheus. Early reviews indicate that it’s just a lot of fun.
10. Online Content and VR
In summer 2015, YouTube got in on the burgeoning VR action by offering support for VR videos on smartphones. It works on the YouTube app, provided you have version 10.21 or later – just start your search with “360 video”. On select videos, you’ll see a small Cardboard icon; tap it, put the phone in your Cardboard viewer, and get a quick and easy VR experience.
Not to ever be outdone, The New York Times will be debuting a documentary film meant to be viewed as immersive VR. The Sunday, November 8 edition will include a Google Cardboard viewer, which means that over one million NYT readers, many of whom have zero firsthand VR experience, will get their first taste of the genre. If the rollout is a success, it could kick open the door to more VR content on the NYT website — and other news sites — in the near future.
Truly, there’s so much that we can do with this technology, and it will be exciting to see where else developers take it.
The VR Gear – Oculus Rift at the Top
While not all VR or AR applications are dependent on stand-alone gear, the VR headsets currently seem to be the cornerstone of the industry. They provide the most immersive experience: over your ears, over your eyes, and full A/V playback. Plus, they’re what most people think of when they think of VR. Some of these headsets are available, some are coming soon, and others are just at the conceptual stage right now, but it looks like there won’t be any shortage of choices.
Perhaps the biggest name in VR gear is Oculus Rift. First announced in 2012 and then purchased in 2014 by Facebook for an astounding $2 billion USD, Oculus Rift and its quirky founder Palmer Luckey have been getting a ton of press lately. The device itself is available for preorder now and will start shipping on March 28th; with lots of tech heads already proclaiming this VR headset as the one to beat.
More VR Options – Project Morpheus, HTC Vive, Avegant Glyph, FOVE and more
Lots of other headsets are garnering lots of press. Sony’s Project Morpheus, which promises to take PlayStation gaming to a whole other level when it’s released in the first half of 2016. The HTC Vive VR, a collaborative project between HTC and Valve (creator of games like Portal and Half-Life), should be available before the end of the year. A beta version of the Avegant Glyph is set to ship soon, and a developer’s version of the Razer OSVR is currently available. Oh, and there’s the Microsoft Hololens, a headset that does both VR and AR, and should come out in a developer’s version in early 2016. There’s no word on a consumer model, though.
Finally, interested individuals can get on the wait list for FOVE, which bills itself as the world’s first eye tracking virtual reality headset; they’re pushing to get units out to initial Kickstarter backers (who contributed almost half a million USD to its development) out as soon as possible.
Smartphone VR Headsets
Many people may not realise that they already own a powerful VR device: their smartphone! Of course, to make VR work properly on your iOS or Android device, you’ll need to slide your phone horizontally into a compatible headset. And, the good news is that there are already several on the market!
Samsung has the Gear VR, which is perfect if you’ve already got a Galaxy Note phone; if you don’t, well, sorry, but it won’t work with anything else. However, the Carl Zeiss VR One and the Immersion VRelia Go will work with a wider range of smartphones, and the VRelia will even work with most phablets.
But if you want to just check out VR without dropping a hundred quid on a device? Google has a solution for you: Cardboard. It’s a simple VR viewer that’s literally made out of cardboard! You can buy one for around £20, or if you’re crafty, you can make your own using instructions available online.
It’s hard to have a conversation about VR and AR, in particular, without at least mentioning Google Glass. Released to invitees only in 2013 and to the general public a year later, Glass is kind of like a wearable Swiss Army knife. While taking photos and videos and providing full communication capabilities to wearers was its big selling point, it also had potential as an AR powerhouse.
Thanks to its tiny display, Glass users could call up search results and all sorts of information, which they could then see in front of them as they looked out on their environment. This opened the way to all sorts of AR applications, from getting directions to your desired destination to motivating you on your morning run. The Glass project is currently on hiatus, but we have to believe that as AR and VR really take off, Google will bring it back in more beefed up (and hopefully affordable) iterations.
The Big TIME Magazine VR Story
In August 2015, TIME printed a cover story about VR that was largely centred around Oculus Rift and founder Palmer Luckey. It was your basic all-about story for the minimally informed masses, but it was a huge deal for such a mainstream magazine to give a VR story so many column inches. Tech publications, of course, have been talking about the triumphant return of VR for well over a year now, but for a big magazine like TIME to pick it up meant quite a lot for the industry.
Unfortunately, you’ll need either a hard copy of the magazine or a TIME digital subscription to read it, as the article is available online only for subscribers.
A Bit of Backlash
As you might imagine, the TIME story generated a lot of reactions, and not all of it was positive. It may not surprise you to learn that much of the response was snarky. For starters, TIME’s cover featured a doofy picture of Luckey in mid-flit with an Oculus Rift over his face. Predictably, in this age of Photoshopping and Photochopping, the internet went wild, placing Luckey’s Rift-faced, barefoot, frolicking likeness in all sorts of ridiculous visual scenarios.
Washington Post – The Uncomfortable Truth about VR
Hayley Tsukayama of The Washington Post wrote a column that laid out the backlash in a more eloquent manner. While VR is cool, she explains, by using it, we show a disconnect with real reality when we choose to strap on a headset and immerse ourselves in a virtual reality. It’s isolating. Plus, she adds, it’s hard to get past the dorkiness factor; wearing a VR headset, we look mindlessly submissive. The famous 1952 J.R. Eyerman photo in LIFE magazine of 3D moviegoers comes to mind.
Tech Crunch – Cables Still a Major Obstacle in VR
While we may be pretty advanced as far as wireless technology goes, the unfortunate reality of virtual reality is that there are still cables — lots of cables. Tech Crunch ran an article about how the more powerful VR headsets will still be very much tethered to sources for a while, and Palmer Luckey even tweeted on November 1, “Cables are going to be a major obstacle in the VR industry for a long time. Mobile VR will be successful long before PC VR goes wireless.”
VR Motion Sichness and Child Safety
Additionally, there are concerns about how people will react to VR physically, as there’s the potential for motion sickness issues and some serious disorientation, especially for heavy users. And of course, there’s the realisation that, as with all new technology, VR is going to be used for pornography. Actually, strike that — VR porn is already available. So, child safety concerns will need to be addressed.
And Where’s Apple VR?
It seems downright strange to have a long article about an emerging new technology and not even mention Apple. So, let’s talk about Apple and VR. Right now, there’s nothing to talk about. However, that may not be the case for long.
For starters, in February 2015, Apple received several patents for a device that looks to be a VR headset. Also, Apple has been buying up small companies that deal in VR and 3D sensing, such as Metaio and PrimeSense. Plus, for close to the past year, Apple has posted job listings for VR developers and engineers. While an Apple VR device isn’t at all a given, all signs are definitely pointing to an iVR in the near future.
Ready to Go Nowhere and Everywhere with VR
Finally, finally, finally, after two decades of delays, the VR market is set to really open up. This upcoming holiday season and the first quarter of 2016 could be especially interesting, with long-awaited devices ready for the masses and major support from big media entities like YouTube and The New York Times. Whether or not it will truly catch on with the general public remains to be seen — will they value the immersion over the isolation? — but gamers and techies have been waiting for this for a long, long time.
And while VR has come a long way since the low-res days of the 1990s, there’s still so much room for improvement on what’s already out there, both in terms of experience and applications. We’re not quite at the level of the OASIS from Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One (a totally indulgent nerdgasm of a novel that you should probably read if you haven’t already), but we are getting closer every day, one device at a time.
See recommended VR headsets on Amazon
Sony Playstation VR
Samsung Gear VR