Virtual reality (or VR) has been featured in (science) fiction for decades. After several failed attempts to commercialise the technology in the 80s and 90s, VR is finally on the verge of breakthrough. The new Millenia has benefited from the more and more powerful computers, the shrinking size of electronics and growing investments in the industry. Game consoles can be controlled with a wave of a hand, you can virtually walk the streets of almost any city in the world with Google Street View, and the first wave of head-mounted displays (HMD’s) for realistic virtual reality are finally here. And the biggest player in the game is Oculus Rift.
Rift was a hugely successful Kickstarter-campaign in 2012, and truly a game-changer in the virtual reality industry. Their developer kits have been very popular and the developer community is racing to build the coolest possible content. The growing opportunities was noticed outside the technology ehnthusiastics, and in 2014 Facebook announced they were buying Oculus for 2 billion dollars. Oculus has since further developed their technology and are aiming to release the first consumer version in early 2016.
Who are the players in the VR game?
Following Oculus’s growing media attention, many other companies have started investing in the VR technology, including HTC, Sony, Samsung, Google, Microsoft, and numerous startups. HTC Vive is expected to be the closest competitor to Oculus Rift, and HTC is planning to release the consumer version still this year. Sony is working on a similar concept, Project Morpheus, but it is only available for the technology giants PlayStation 4 and PlayStation Vita game systems. Samsung Gear VR is only a “dumb” head mount, and you need to have a high end Samsung smart phone as the engine and display to use it.
Even though Google’s augmented reality glasses, Google Glass, failed, they are still eagerly working on multiple VR projects. Their Google Cardboard is an affordable VR head mount for certain Android phones, made from cardboard. One of the more interesting startups working on VR is FOVE, who have created advanced head mounted display, with iris tracking. For example this allows you to select items, shoot enemies or look for other virtual persons, just by, well, looking at them. Microsoft is also working on HoloLens, an augmented reality HMD, that adds computer generated content on top of your “normal” view. And new players are entering the game all the time.
We at Make Helsinki have been following the development of the industry for some time now, and have been working with the Oculus Rift developer kit since 2014. As we’ve demoed experiences with the Rift to our customers and partners, the first impressions have been very funny, surprising and impressed. People have literally fallen from their seats, screamed, laughed or experienced dizziness. It’s definitely not always easy to sit still, nor not to make sounds. And watching first timers (and why not more experienced too) using the HMD can be very entertaining too. Aside Oculus, we’ve also tested several other HMD models and we are very much believing in the future of virtual reality.
Diving into the virtual reality
So as there is a growing interest and belief in the future of virtual reality, you might ask what is it good for. In the beginning, developers were building mostly small games and scary, funny, unreal or very real experiences. Games get a completely new dimension with HMD and it gives completely new possibilities for developers, and players. We are definitely going to see more and more games join the virtual reality race. And walking through non-game experiences will be – at least in the beginning – a huge fun to novice users. These experiences combine elements from games and movies, and allow users to ride roller-coasters, experience alien worlds or dark, scary moments. Instead of running on a treadmill on your basement, how about going for a run in N.Y. Central Park? Or perhaps along some long forgotten mountain path in the Himalayas? Or on planet Dagobah with Luke Skywalker next to you? With several new virtual reality controllers in works, the game and game-like experiences will surely be one of the biggest initial markets.
It will be interesting to see how movie industry reacts to the growing interest in virtual reality. Oculus has already started Story Studio to create short movies for VR, and several short indie movies already exists or are in the making. However, as none of the manufacturers have any products on consumer markets and we haven’t seen the actual break through of VR yet, we still have some years to wait for the explosion of movie content. The movie industry will most probably not take bigger risks producing VR feature movies before consumers proof that the HMD’s will actually be the next big thing. However, adult movie industry has already jumped on the bandwagon and are producing 360 degree virtual porn. And the first reports call it also a commercial success. A side track for this is – though still very far away – is to have virtual intercourse with your significant other in real time, no matter where you are. If Internet is making the world smaller, VR will make it tiny.
Of course there are non-entertainment opportunities for HMD’s too. Working hands on with virtual 3D modelling or interior decoration, taking virtual tours of museums or new work places, the endless opportunities on tourism, remote controlling machinery or robots in dangerous environments, or even taking university courses in real environment are just some of the opportunities in the future. It seems very probable that the practical uses for VR will never be as huge as the entertainment experiences – but in a long run, the way we work, enjoy art or just spend free time can and will change dramatically.
And this is something that has also been seen as the biggest issue with the virtual reality. Already we are spending growing amount of time watching our laptops, tv’s, smartphones, tablets, and more recently our smart watches, instead of real people. We are seeing our friends and families less in real life and communicating with them more through displays and keyboards. In 5 years, does watching a movie with friends mean everyone sitting on the sofa with their HMD’s on, enjoying the immersive experience? And with 3D cameras, you don’t even need to be on the same couch, or in the same city – or even in the same country, to see your friends next to you, talk to them normally, show them thumbs up and laugh at the funny faces they are making. However, with the growing amount of always connected technology around us, we are actually connecting more with of our network, more often and faster. With VR, this could be even more realistic and allows you to “meet” with people located anywhere in the world. The opportunities for completely new ways of communication could be life changing, especially for people with disabilities. But this is something that will be discussed more and more, especially when the technology starts to break through.
The future looks bright with a head-mounted display on
Within about 6 months, the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift will enter the consumer markets, with constantly growing number of competitors. Several companies, including GoPro and old phone giant Nokia are building video cameras to film high quality 360 degree virtual reality content. Technologically the HMD’s are finally able to produce fast, realistic and responsive experiences. But as Bill Gates wrote already in 1996, content is king. Luckily for us, numerous small and big companies are already working on this. There’s a quickly growing number of indie-projects available on Oculus Share, and more and more big developers are including support for HMD’s in their games. When the consumer versions of HMD’s become available, there will already be an impressive amount of high quality content available for purchase and for free download – more than any other new technology has ever had. The quality of the hardware is good enough, and the amount of quality content will be good enough. The only question remains, will the society be ready to change their entertainment consumption, working and communications habits dramatically and immerse finally to the virtual reality.
I believe that the virtual reality will finally make its breakthrough – and a lot of industries will be affected by it.