Virtual reality: virtually there 29.11.-1

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With recent launches from all of the big players, 2017 could be the year that virtual reality finally lives up to its promise

If 2017 turns out to be the year that virtual-reality technology finally breaks through to the mainstream, we may not look back with much surprise. VR promises to liberate us from the constraints and compromises of the physical world: according to enthusiasts, you could soon transport yourself to a far-off land, the front row of a concert, or a fantasy world where the rules of science cease to exist, simply by donning a headset. With additional apparatus, you could experience flight or a credible simulation of sex.
The underlying implication (and perhaps the draw) is that it could allow us to escape into individual utopias that suit precisely our particular tastes, ambitions and ideologies – a natural progression, one might say, from today’s tendency to ensconce ourselves in digital echo chambers surrounded only by the people and ideas we’re comfortable with. Of course, the concept is not new – humans have long dreamed of creating plausible artificial environments, despite the enormous barriers to doing so. In

the 1830s, stereoscopic devices allowed people to view flat images and see them in three dimensions. In the 1950s, cinematographer Morton Heilig offered multisensory experiences via his Sensorama cabinet, complete with speakers, stereoscopic display, fans, smell generators and a vibrating chair. Flight simulators and head-mounted displays followed, as did the term ‘virtual reality’ itself in the 1980s, but the technology never advanced enough to reach the mass market. VR faded from public attention, and we satisfied ourselves with low-tech ‘immersive’ experiences devised by artists and set designers.

Now VR’s time may finally have come. In March 2016, Oculus Rift (pictured) became the first consumer-oriented VR headset on the market, followed by launches by HTC, Samsung and Playstation. Forecasts predict that 2016 is set to be VR’s first ‘billion-dollar year’ and that the sector could be worth $70bn by 2020. In 2014, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg revealed his faith in the technology by buying the company behind Oculus Rift for $2 billion, calling it the ‘next computing platform’. This is significant, not least because he is trying to confront one of the main barriers to adoption – the idea that VR is inherently antisocial. In October, he showed how social networks might incorporate VR by allowing people to interact as avatars. He has even made casual references to its potential to enable telepathy (a headline-grabbing claim we may not need to worry about for a while, but which highlights the risk of leaving it to tech entrepreneurs alone to shape a system with such potential for abuse).

For now though, developers are still struggling with the basics: by and large, higher spec headsets still need to be tethered to computers, while the experience can cause nausea, headaches and blurred vision. The headsets themselves are still absurdly cumbersome – reminiscent of a time before we became accustomed to discreet, streamlined personal gadgets and were promised Google Glass and VR contact lenses. But these kinks are being ironed out rapidly. In October, Zuckerberg demonstrated a prototype of an untethered Oculus. VR is also riding the wave of other advances: the ground is being laid for the next generation of high-speed internet, which will be essential to connect users to each other. Developments in camera and tracking technologies and artificial intelligence mean headsets can respond better to surroundings. When combined with robotics, VR’s industrial and technical potential becomes apparent.

As a result, there’s enthusiasm among commercial and public organisations, who can see VR’s applications beyond gaming. Consultant PwC this year named it as one of eight tech ‘megatrends’ that businesses should ‘absolutely consider’, while Goldman Sachs predicts it will be a more lucrative market than television within ten years. In China, work is underway to open thousands of ‘VR cafes’, with President Xi Jinping becoming the first world leader to cite VR as a core element of his country’s growth plans: ‘The combination of the virtual economy and the real economy will bring revolutionary changes to our way of work and way of life,’ he said in September. Broadly, the hope is for more efficient use of time, space and money – training surgeons without cadavers or engineers without equipment; showing off architectural designs, real estate, retail stock or holiday destinations from afar; creating scenarios to coach athletes and soldiers; or controlling robots in hazardous areas. Another attraction is VR’s potential to offer vivid, realistic experiences: virtual meetings could replace real ones in a way teleconferencing on a screen never could; schools and universities could impart knowledge in a more visceral way; and designers could easily visualise and collaborate on ideas.

From global companies such as Bosch and Jaguar Land Rover to public bodies such as Transport for London, money is being poured into VR, but it’s clear that reaching a mass market will hinge on the production of a killer consumer product that captures the imagination of a public jaded by VR’s repeated failure to launch. The technology is advancing apace, but the final push may need to come from the creative sector. Early adopters such as the BBC, British Museum and The Economist are already filling the gap of compelling ‘content’ – most strikingly, the latter’s reconstruction of the Mosul museum, destroyed by ISIS. Alternatively, it might be the porn industry that cracks it first: its work on ‘teledildonic’ devices, which incorporate physical sensations into the VR experience, may expand the market and aid the development of haptic technology that could make VR more immersive. Either way, the final verdict will come from users – will the reality of VR live up to the fantasy?

This article first appeared in Icon 164



Debika Ray


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