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Virtual reality: it’s showtime

Virtual reality: it’s showtime

As Oculus Rift goes on sale, Tom Standage peers into the future of virtual reality

As Oculus Rift goes on sale, Tom Standage peers into the future of virtual reality

Tom Standage | April/May 2016

Is the growing buzz around virtual reality (VR) about to translate into real demand – or is it all, as it were, just a high-tech illusion? The answer will start to come into focus in the next few weeks. VR, which lets you enter a three-dimensional virtual world by donning a pair of chunky goggles, flopped in the 1990s but is attempting a comeback in 2016. The long-awaited Oculus Rift headset is released on March 28th, four years after the first prototype was unveiled. It will compete with a rival headset, the HTC Vive, launching in April. For the first time, consumers will be able to buy high-end VR gear. But will they? And where is the technology going?

The latest VR technology is certainly impressive, and will no doubt win rave reviews. Most sales are expected to be to video-gamers, the most devoted of whom are willing to splash out for the latest gear, with new games being developed to take advantage of the opportunity.

VR has other applications beyond games. It allows close inspection of works of art, which are cordoned off, locked in vitrines or have even disappeared. RecoVR: Mosul is a collaboration between The Economist, Project Mosul – a volunteer group that crowdsourced images from Mosul Musuem – and two VR artists, Ziv Schneider and Laura Chen. It lets you examine artefacts destroyed by Islamic State. 

The technology also has the potential to transform live events, enabling far more people to attend than might otherwise fit in a venue. Last year, a van kitted out with auditorium seats and headsets transported viewers into the midst of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. There is growing interest in VR video too. The UN commissioned “Clouds over Sidra”, a powerful documentary depicting the life of a Syrian girl in a refugee camp in Jordan. And, inevitably, people are working on VR pornography.

Researchers are already using prototypes of the Rift to treat phobias and post-traumatic stress disorder: such “virtual-reality exposure therapy” allows people with PTSD to re-experience the situations that caused their trauma within a controlled virtual environment. VR is being used to train pilots, tank commanders and surgeons. And hotel chains, estate agents and architects like the idea of being able to offer virtual tours of prospective wedding destinations and planned condominiums. 

The standard-bearer for the VR revival is Oculus. Palmer Luckey, its 23-year-old founder, hacked together his first headset in 2011 and demonstrated it at a video-games conference in 2012. Gamers loved it, and Oculus quickly raised $2.4m in a crowdfunding campaign, followed by $75m from a venture-capital firm. In 2014 Facebook acquired Oculus for $2 billion. Facebook’s founder, Mark Zuckerberg, reckons that “immersive 3D content is the obvious next thing” for social media: he imagines users posting VR videos and engaging in VR chats.

So jaws dropped when Oculus said in January that the Rift would cost $599 – far more than expected. And that’s just for the headset and the hand-held controllers; it also requires a hefty PC to power it. That doesn’t sound like the imminent arrival of a mass-market technology.

The Vive, the rival headset from HTC, an ailing Taiwanese smartphone manufacturer, is expected to cost about the same when it goes on sale in April. It has similar technical specs to the Rift, but with an added twist: two base-stations map the space around the wearer and determine the position and orientation of the headset. This means the Vive can tell when you are moving around, adding an extra level of immersion. (It can also warn you if you are about to bump into a wall.)

For the rest of us, though, these fancy headsets may prove to be an evolutionary dead-end. Most people, after all, do not own high-powered PCs. Nearly everybody in the rich world owns a smartphone, however – and that offers VR a far more plausible path to mainstream adoption.

VR’s comeback has in fact been made possible by the rise of the smartphone. Rendering a convincing 3D world requires high-resolution screens to show slightly different images to each eye, motion sensors to monitor the movement of the wearer’s head and enough processing power to adjust the images quickly to make them seem realistic. As luck would have it, all of those things can be found inside modern smartphones, which has made VR hardware cheaper to put together.

Slot your phone into a $10 cardboard adaptor (the most popular model, from Google, is called “Cardboard”), download a free VR app, and you can get an impressive taste of VR for a fraction of the price of an Oculus Rift. Even better value is Samsung’s $99 Gear VR adaptor, which turns a high-end Samsung handset into something far more comfortable and capable than a cardboard headset.

Similarly, Google and Apple are thought to be developing VR headsets that work with smartphones – or as entirely self-contained headsets that make use of smartphone technology. This smartphone-based approach seems most likely to represent the future of VR; the Rift and the Vive are blazing a trail, but may soon come to be regarded as astonishingly clunky and expensive. The smartphone has upended many other industries. Might it also have undermined the market for high-end VR headsets before they have even gone on sale? We’re about to find out.

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