Questions concerning the near future of VR (virtual reality)

As Oculus Rift preorders start, disagreement remains about how mainstream VR will be, whether it is around more than games, and what it will do to people

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Is 2016 the year that virtual reality (VR) eventually makes its breakthrough as a mainstream technology? That is a question because of its evangelists and sceptics to argue about, and you’ll find lots in both camps.

With Facebook’s Oculus Rift headset now open to preorder, Sony’s PlayStation VR and HTC’s Vive on their way, and millions of inexpensive Google Cardboard headsets out in the crazy already, this year will visit a barrage of experimenting around VR.

Stepping back from your hoopla, there are three major questions – truly actual questions, you could say – about VR’s potential, so when the responses emerge in 2016, we’ll have a far greater idea of whether this time round, the technology is going to be a success or a flop.

How mainstream is this technology actually likely to be?
Facebook manager Mark Zuckerberg did not spend $2bn purchasing Oculus VR to release a market headset for high end PC owners, even though that is pretty much what its first commercial variant – selling for $599 plus the cost of a strong PC (if desired) – will be.

“One day, we believe this kind of immersive, augmented reality will become a part of daily life for billions of people,” wrote Zuckerberg in March 2014, when he declared the acquisition. Facebook views VR as another large computing platform, but that may depend on it becoming a mainstream apparatus.

Oculus VR creator Palmer Luckey has recognized the challenge. “Most folks do not have computers with high end graphics cards. As time goes on, that is likely to transform: give it five or six years, and most computers will soon be effective at running great virtual encounters,” he said in the Web Summit summit in December 2015.

“Right now it’s going to be this niche just because of the equipment … but you can still sell many millions of units.”

Will VR actually be about more than games?
When Oculus Rift first appeared as a $2.4m Kickstarter crowdfunding effort in 2013, it was all about the games. “The first truly immersive virtual reality headset for video games.”

When it ships this spring, it will come with two games: Lucky’s Story and EVE: Valkyrie, with the assurance of “more than 100 titles available by the end of 2016”. A few of the world’s top games console, PC and mobile programmers work on VR games for the Rift and PlayStation VR.

And yet … VR is going to be about more than games. Zuckerberg was definitely believing beyond gaming when he declared Facebook’s Oculus acquisition.

“This is only the beginning. After games, we are likely to make Oculus a platform for a number of other encounters,” he wrote. “Imagine enjoying a court side seat at a game, studying in a classroom of students and teachers all over the world or consulting with a doctor face to face – just by putting on goggles in your home.”

Already, several non-gaming uses are emerging to the fore: instruction and training; VR movies; music and sports. Plus, necessarily, porn.

In the Web Summit, Luckey looked especially keen on instruction. “There’s a lot of potential for virtual reality in the education industry,” he said. “Classrooms are busted. Children do not learn the best by reading novels.”

Maybe not viewpoints that’ll endear him to some teachers, but Luckey went to indicate that VR could be a means to provide kids virtual field-trips to areas they wouldn’t be able to see in the real world.

There is lots to discuss about virtual reality as a technology, but its future is going to be identified just as much by its societal gains and prices.

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