2016 was the year of virtual reality. In one year major players like Facebook, Sony and HTC all released their VR headsets. The IDC predicts that the VR market could become a $160 billion market by 2020. Will this revenue only come from gaming? Or are there other implementations of virtual reality in our lives in the near future? What about a second virtual world we can escape to whenever we want?
Virtual reality did not happen overnight
It seems like the presence of virtual reality into our daily newsfeed happened overnight. An alien threw a VR goggle and a USB stick with software out of a space ship and all of sudden we all were reading about and/or wearing VR goggles. The technology is backed with venture capitalists spending billions in what they call the next big thing in ‘tech’ (Looking at you Magic Leap). But what is the history behind the technology that just learned how to walk?
The history of virtual reality started in the 19th century. 360-degree murals gave the viewer an impression of being part of a historical event or scene. Without any form of technology painters succeeded in creating the illusion of being present somewhere we are not.
Another important development towards the virtual reality we know today, is the invention of the stereoscope. A lens that turns two different two-dimensional images into one three dimensional single object. The View-Master came to life in 1939 and was used for ‘virtual tourism’. But we all know this gadget as the tool that shows a different picture of Disney figures with every ‘trigger’ in a paper ’round’. The same technology is used today in more affordable VR lenses like the Google Cardboard and Samsung Gear VR.
Fast forward to the the second half of the 20th Century now. Morton Heilig was the inventor of the Telesphere Mask in 1960. The ‘mask’ was the first example of a head-mounted display (HMD) or in plain english: the VR ‘goggles’. Only 1 year later, 2 Philco Corporation engineers developed the VR goggles as we know them today: capable of motion tracking with a video screen for each eye.
Virtual reality was born
During the early years, nobody talked about ‘Virtual Reality’ as a field-of-study. It was only until Jaron Lanier, founder of the visual programming lab (VPL) popularised the term in 1987. The VPL was also the first company to sell VR goggles. The price? Starting at $9,000 going up until $49,000. It was too much of a niche during that time and Jaron later sold his the patents to Sun Microsystems and filed bankruptcy in 1990.
In 1993 Sega released its VR glasses (that look a lot like the Playstation VR headset) and 1995 was the year of the biggest failures in Nintendo’s history: the Virtual Boy (Jup, the Wii U wasn’t the only bad product the Japanese company made). 1999 was the year that The Matrix hit theatres, 2016 was the year that Elon Musk claimed we are almost certainly living in a Matrix style simulation.
Wanna know more about the history of Virtual Reality. Read the fantastic overview on VRS here
VR: to infinity and beyond?
We now know where VR came from, but where is it going? When we look at the current state of VR, we should make the clear statement that this is only a pitstop towards the real potential of the technology. It’s only until now that strong enough processors could be produced that can handle the insane amount of data processing a virtual trip to the Louvre demands from a computer. Before, the necessary technologies just didn’t exist or were too expensive. So the obvious thing to do here is to look forward and approach the current state as a transition period.
But what do is important to remember about VR in 2016, is that the major players in the business democratised the technology. The only boundary that remains is the social stigma of wearing a VR google in a public place. The technology you need is improving fast as the market is becoming bigger and bigger. Although, when you look at the products you need to buy to have a decent VR experience, you release it doesn’t stop at the purchase of VR glasses. This is preventing the masses of buying VR goggles now. A virtual world won’t be accessible to the masses, for now…
But as we look at the price of something as hi-tech as a smartphone, which has been decreasing since 2011 and will keep on decreasing. It is very plausible that by 2020 there will be nothing but VR goggles under the Christmas tree. The bigger the market, the cheaper the ‘tech’, the more plausible it becomes that escaping to a virtual world will be possible.
Most of 2016’s developments in virtual reality happened in the gaming industry. But also in the media business interesting stuff happened, NextVR announced it will broadcasts NBA games in VR and Jaunt broadcasted a Paul McCartney performance in 360 VR. In general these are not life changing developments, they are just changing the way we consume media that is more vibrant and intense than ever before. So besides disrupting the media landscape how can VR make a true impact on our lives? And what will the consequences be if a technology with such an impact on our experiences and senses becomes a part of our daily lives?
I made up the following story with the Microsoft Hololens or the lens Magic Leap is working on, in mind. As I think that VR is the transition towards technologies like AR that will have a much bigger impact and usability through the vast combination of reality and the artificial world.
Imagine a world that, at first glance, has stopped innovating. Everything still looks like 5 years ago. Houses look cold with the bare minimum of furniture. Cars are electric but they are not the eye-catchers they once were. Everything looks normal. Expect one thing. A pair of glasses that everyone in this world seems to wear these days. The people on the streets, in the metro or in the park don’t seem to care too much about the dull world they live in. They laugh, do sports and take there children, who also were the same glasses, to the zoo or the park.
What’s up with those glasses?
‘Those glasses’ once were something the rich and famous use to escape to another universe. They were super expensive back in the day. But it was all worth the money, you could hear people say on the television. Years went by and technology innovated towards a point where ‘those glasses’ became accessible for everyone. Sales skyrocketed and no one would ever take of those glasses anymore.
”Those glasses’ have the insane power of showing the world like you want to see it. No one uses phones anymore everything is implemented into those glasses. Through a chip in people’s brain a deep learning tiny but super powerful computer analyses your preferences, emotions, thoughts and agitations and uses them to depict a world that completely differs from reality. Nobody knows what reality looks like anymore, as it looks different for anyone else. It is nothing more than the foundation a better world was built on.
And it works, people are happier, they have more time for the fun things as everyone is living on a basic income as a result of the increase in automation. Which results in more time spent in the ‘perfect’ world. No more sad news, everyone lives like a millionaire and shiny happy people all over the place.
Is this what a virtual world could look like? A world that changes through glasses we wear that have access to how we feel and think? It’s one option.
Bye smartphone, Hi VR goggle
One thing is clear, VR should be seen as the successor of the smartphone, impact-wise. The ‘always on’ lifestyle that the smartphone has introduced, will continue through VR or AR goggles. Only in a more impressive and powerful way.
To be honest, a world like that looks pretty amazing. But do we really want to lose our touch with the real world? It is not crazy to state that people won’t know what is happening in the real world. Think climate change, geopolitics and other ‘bad’ stuff that would be banned from the perfect virtual world but is critical to secure the future of our planet.
Delusions like this are already happening to people who spend a lot of time in games like World of Warcraft or Second Life (a virtual world avant la lettre). A Vice article covered several gamers who run away from the real world and its problems to spend time playing their favourite games. One player, a 69-year old named Patricia, refused to spend time with her husband and family in order to play World of Warcraft.
These are extreme examples of course, but it shows the impact technology can have on people who are already out of touch with their environment. A study has shown that there is a pattern between gaming and smartphone addiction. So, the smartphone is paving the way to a world where people are already eager to escape from reality. It is only a matter of time until VR and AR offers a even more tempting way to run away to a virtual world and forget about the stress and frustrations of the real world. Will we ever want to go back to reality once we’ve seen this world?
What a (virtual) world we are living in
Honestly, I never thought a discussion about escapism in the digital world, would come to mind. But it did. And it is one of the most interesting things about the fast moving technologic world we are living in. We are truly living in interesting times with amazing technology that will change our lives forever.
The only thing I want to stress. This is not how I define technology that makes our lives better. Escapism will never be a solution for real world problems, but if it can have real impact on the emotional state of human beings, I’ll be the first to invest in such technologies. We just need to ask ourselves at the same time: “where did we go wrong that such technologies are in demand?”.