I just turned 40 in March of this year. I realize I don’t always know what is cool and new in music anymore (Babymetal?) or what is trendy to wear. I know what Snapchat is, but my reaction to using it is a dispassionate “Why?”.
However I am still a huge technology and gaming fan.
I get excited at the idea of higher resolutions and internet integration. I’m an early adopter when my wallet allows. I’ve stood in line for midnight releases of games and systems and I think people who are there just to resell them for outrageous prices on eBay and Amazon should be punched squarely in their most sensitive anatomy for denying someone else the chance to own it.
I realize, of course, most people aren’t going to be as excited about new technology like I am. Virtual Reality has arrived and I may be the only one of my friends and family that knows that. With at least three high end headsets coming out by October, I might go a little overboard and describe VR as something so big and revolutionary that it could be a turning point in home entertainment. To the general public, this hasn’t even “blipped” on their radar. In general, the marketing of these new VR releases isn’t kicking open the front door, with trumpets blaring and a hype man shouting, “Can you really believe this is possible!?!” Instead, it came in nonchalantly from the side, leaned up against the wall and waited until someone noticed and asked, “Hey, when did you get here?”.
You see, two of the headsets are already available, already in people’s homes. If you’re not a technophile, you’re probably not aware of that. They’re expensive. They’re only available through online ordering. Right now they’re targeted at gamers and any national press about them will likely be reflected by that. They’re going to face the same hard road to general awareness and adoption all new technologies face, from niche to mainstream. It’s an honest question to ask if this iteration of VR will it be able to survive with such a large price tag, especially among the general public who don’t have a clear picture of what it delivers. I may be naive, but I think it can. In fact, I think 25 years from now, this tech may well be remembered alongside jumps in technology like cable television, CDs and the iPhone.
The success of the James Cameron movie Avatar ushered in the 3D craze for companies like Samsung, Sony and LG, who bet big on 3D capable sets being the next big jump in home entertainment. Now, it’s 2016 and you’ll find the inventory for 3D television sets limited to a couple of models, with newer 4K and Ultra 4K sets not offering 3D at all. The huge variety of channels that supported 3D, like ESPN 3D, have disappeared as quickly as they came into existence. So why should consumers believe the fate of VR will be any different when it suffers from some of the same drawbacks (expensive new hardware, extra peripherals) as the highly touted 3D revolution? Let’s take a look at the hardware first.
The Kickstarter backed Oculus Rift headset started the new space race of VR technology in 2012. A few years later they were bought out by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. Game developer Valve decided to join the fray in 2015, by announcing the HTC Vive. They exhibit some differences right out of the box: the Oculus is geared to a more sit down experience in front of your PC, while the Vive is pushing “roomscale” which lets you walk around in a predefined space. That being said, most of the technical specs are the same: 110 degree field of view, 90hz refresh rate, high definition OLED screens inside. For a more in depth comparison check out Digital Trends’ comparison article, complete with spec chart.
They’re expensive too, with the Oculus coming in at $599.99 for the headset and one sensor and the Vive at a hefty $799.99 for the headset, two controllers and two sensors. Later this year Oculus will release their own “Touch” controllers, that comes with an extra sensor (making roomscale possible on the Oculus) for an estimated $150-200, bringing the Oculus close to the Vive in pricing. Don’t forget the added expense of a PC capable of running the VR software. With minimum requirements of at least a GTX 970 video card (290, if you like Radeon) and i5-4590 processor, you won’t be running this on the five-year-old Dell you used in college.
This may be why the release of the tech has seemed so relatively soft. The advertising footprint of either one isn’t very broad yet. Both Vive and Oculus are available now, releasing just a week apart, starting at the end of March. If someone doesn’t frequent gaming sites and message boards, it’s likely they wouldn’t know that. Both companies realize that unless you’re the type to get excited about new tech, it’s unlikely you’d shell out $1000 plus for everything you’d need to get one of these VR systems up and running at home.
Jacksepticeye tries out the Aperture Robot Repair Lab on the HTC Vive. Great reactions to scale and height in the VR world. (NSFW language):
The larger public awareness of VR may come in October as the Playstation releases the PSVR headset ($399.99). With the PS4’s 34 million install base and the marketing experience Sony has from years of home console releases, the launch should make quite a lot of noise. Expect Sony to plaster the new technology on billboards, in magazines and TV commercials, to make the PSVR the must-have item holiday item of 2017. In the long run, raising public awareness of PSVR should help Vive and Oculus too. The Sony headset will run off of the non-upgradable PS4 hardware, so it will be much less powerful than its PC competitors, especially in the long run. Those who are introduced to virtual reality by the PSVR will be better educated about what the medium offers and more inclined to spend their money on the top end experience that the Vive and Oculus offer.
PSVR Announcement Video:
So why do I think this experience will survive, while inhome 3D turned out to be just a fad? 3D failed because it simply provided an enhancement to the way you watched TV, which people decided wasn’t worth the investment. It was still TV whereas VR provides a completely new experience. It’s more akin to the radio being introduced to the home or when sound was first added to a motion picture.
I may not have been around for those landmark moments, but I remember getting the Atari 2600 and being able to play Donkey Kong and Frogger at home for the first time. I’ve seen the NES, Playstation and Xbox all make their debuts in the years that followed, and the marked jump in graphics and gameplay that went along with them. While the Oculus and Vive are certainly geared towards gamers at this point (traditional early adopters), VR shouldn’t be confused as simply the latest iteration of gaming hardware. It’s what else VR will be able to do, besides games, that can make it appeal to everyone in a household.
You’re not going to have to wait for VR to catch on for there to be expanded functionality, either. Already, Youtube has support for 360 degree video. Some cameras, even those on phones, can be used to make 360 degree pictures. You can use a Netflix app to watch movies in a virtual theater and the Hulu app has TV shows that let you change the background and watch from a virtual setting.
360 degree picture in VR.
Books and comics could be big in the virtual space, if audiobooks are any indication. Instead of just listening to a novel, VR could put you in different settings from the book, setting the tone, while the author reads the story. If a publisher like Marvel or DC went the VR route, you could have fully explorable panels in comics. Interactivity could certainly be taken advantage of too. Instead of reaching “the end” of a book or comic and simply being done with it, a reader might be able to explore a character’s bedroom, or pick up Captain America’s shield to toss around a virtual training ground.
Online ticket resellers like StubHub are beginning to offer 360 degree views from each seat that are available to purchase, so buyers can know ahead of time exactly how good their seats are. One day you might buy a ticket to watch a sold out game or concert from your own home, in virtual reality, as it streams to your headset from the best seat in the house. Except in neither case would you be limited by a seating chart; how about hovering over the line of scrimmage in a Super Bowl, or standing on stage with a band as they look out over 90,000 people at Coachella? It may take awhile for bandwidth to catch up and be able to stream these events live, but there is no reason the currently available headsets couldn’t pull it off from their end.
Street View on Google already has a VR mode that supports head tracking. A kid who’s never left his hometown will be able to stand in Paris below the Eiffel Tower or walk the streets of Tokyo. Imagine the impact this will have on education, as distant learning won’t be regulated to a Skype session, but can be an immersive interaction with far away classrooms and cultures. You could learn a foreign language by talking with a native speaker while in their home or walking through their town. These types of innovations in travel and education will only get better the longer VR has been around.
Paint with 3D light in VR Tiltbrush.
It seems that virtual reality has a long road ahead before it can be considered an indispensable part of our daily lives like the family PC or TV set — large price tag and the lack of understanding that it’s more than just a new toy for playing video games being just two factors. You have to remember though, that when the first black and white television sets were sold in the late 1920s, they were also considered a luxury. A decade ago the first Blu-Ray players cost a thousand dollars and today you can buy one from Walmart for fifty bucks. The prices for VR technology will come down, while at the same time the breadth of what it can do will continue to grow and get better.
In 2017, Stephen Spielberg’s film adaptation of the book Ready Player One will get its release. Ready Player One is one of the best fiction books written about virtual reality. In the book, the characters live in a future where VR isn’t just common, but indispensable. When it was first published, it was a forward looking glance at “what could be.” By the time people are lining up to buy their tickets, the film may seem a lot less like fantasy than the author intended. VR won’t survive because it’s an upgraded platform of something we already own — it’ll survive because it’s a new and unique way to experience TV, art, music, education and books, that we have never seen before. We just need people to try it.