Virtual reality has been with us for a few decades, but it has never been able to be more than an experimental technology. While scientists have been tinkering with VR since the 1960s when the first flight simulators were launched, it was only in 2013 that we came closer to buying one of these devices, thanks to Oculus VR Rift. A couple of years later the world is still far from an off-the-shelf VR solution for consumers. This year might change all that.
At the IFA 2014 in Berlin, Samsung showed the developer version of Gear VR which works on its top-end smartphone. Months later, at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, it upgraded the same for its Galaxy S6 smartphones. This version is thinner and easier to use according to Samsung. But Samsung’s take on VR, though powered by Oculus, is essentially a smartphone straddled in front of your eyes. I found the experience disorienting, and I’m sure others who’ve tried it will agree. Google Cardboard does the same and costs just a few dollars. But that experience is worse. I found it tough to walk after 15 minutes with the Cardboard as my eyes took time to adjust to the real world.
At the CES in Las Vegas, there were a handful of companies showcasing their take on the technology. The virtual reality in these headsets differ in complexity. Most try to tap in on the gaming community, while others have found a good way to sell it to industries where hands-on training can be tough and simulation is the only way to make workers understand a process. All these solutions are too expensive to ever have a mass value.
Now, smartphone maker HTC wants to change that with its Vive headset. While HTC is working on giving its design expertise to the headset so that it can be worn for long hours without breaking your neck and wrecking your eyesight, it has roped in gaming giant Valve to help with content. Where Vive stands out is in being the first VR headset to promise a full room experience. It means users will not just be able to look around a virtual space, but also walk into it and around virtual objects.
HTC chairwoman Cher Wang is convinced that like her company’s experience with the first smartphones, she will be able to make VR a mass technology with the Vive. CEO Peter Chou believes the Vive experience will change the way we interact with the world. HTC is still guarded about its product and technology, but those who got a sneak peek of the Vive are awed. The first developer version will be available this spring, followed by the first consumer build by the end of the year. Chou promised that the optical performance will be much better than anything available in the market. “We want to provide something which the general consumer will crave to buy. All products in the market are just gigs you use for 20 minutes at the most and not meant for general consumption. You can wear Vive for two hours and experience something like a concert or a sports event.”
The future will be exciting when companies start creating content for VR devices. That will happen only when such devices achieve a certain level of critical mass, but who wouldn’t pay to watch Gravity as a virtual reality experience? HTC, meanwhile, is thinking beyond entertainment. One of its partners is the National Palace Museum in Taiwan, along with Google, HBO and Lionsgate. The company is talking about a “broader vision for VR” which can help “transform everyday experiences”. And that is a first. The possibilities are limitless, such as a VR headset in a classroom that lets students experience places they are studying about, or the one that helps medical students understand human anatomy like never before.
Despite Sony too announcing Project Morpheus, the VR headset for PlayStation 4, we are still far from seeing VR that will change our lives. However, 2015 could well be the year in which virtual reality transcends all its barriers and becomes a mass consumption technology.