What the Dragons Taught Us About Virtual Reality

“… and if one could make a movie very real indeed, what would you say then?” – Stanley G. Weinbaum in Pygmalion’s Spectacles

No one has ever really seen a dragon – at least no one I know of anyway. However, we can all describe these fierce-looking, fire-breathing creatures with uncanny accuracy and a strong sense of detail that anyone could easily be convinced that they are real. 

Science fiction has always aimed to stretch the boundaries of what we believe to be possible. When Stanley Weinbaum first published Pygmalion’s spectacles in 1935, the very idea that reality could be created or manipulated seemed at best like an exciting theme for the next best-selling James Whale sci-fi thriller. However, several decades down the line, virtual reality has begun to evolve from a fictional theory into an existing technology with real-world applications across various industries such as medicine, education, gaming, travel, and much more. 

Several commercial giants such as IKEA, Toms, and Alibaba have begun incorporating virtual reality to create a better shopping experience for customers. Currently, customers can shop virtually by looking around a virtual store and purchasing their items. 

Slowly but surely, VR is gaining ground, and many believe that VR tech will become more immersive and achieve mainstream relevance in a relatively short time.

They Taught Us About the R’S

Let’s face it; if there’s anything we can learn from dragons, it’s the fact that we decide what’s real and what isn’t. The world as we know it is changing, and the way we see and interact with it is also changing. The age of alternate reality is here, and technology is rapidly growing to provide the necessary hardware and software to modify how we experience everything around us. 

Spatial computing can generally be divided into three R’s: augmented reality, virtual reality, and mixed reality. Generally, people tend to lump all three together, referring to everything as VR. However, this is a wildly inaccurate description. In contrast to what most think, alternate reality is a broad theme encompassing all the three R’s, each having its unique purpose, features, and technologies. Believe it or not, chances are that you may have begun to interact with some of these technologies already, and if you haven’t, you probably will at some point soon. 

Whether it’s playing a mixed reality game like Pokémon GO or using a VR headset, people all over the world are beginning to engage with alternate reality in more significant numbers, and the outlook of this innovation has never looked better.

They Taught Us VR

Of all the three R’s, Virtual reality is easily the most popular and the most promising. VR provides an engaging and immersive experience. It takes the user into a completely new environment by taking advantage of their visual and auditory perceptions. VR renders high-quality 3D images with accompanying sound to simulate the feeling of being truly present in that environment. These images could be entirely digitally generated or just 3D images of actual locations. Users usually require a VR headset and sometimes other accompanying hardware such as gloves, guns, a steering wheel, and more to involve the eyes, ears, and the entire body in the digital experience. VR lets users into a world that they otherwise may have never been able to see or experience in real-time. And what’s fantastic about it is that you don’t just see this digital world; you are in it. 

VR has seen its applications predominantly in entertainment, where it has been used in games and movies. More sophisticated games are being created every year with this technology, a trend that shows no signs of stopping anytime soon. However, its use is not limited to this industry alone. VR has also proven helpful in delivering better healthcare, improving performance through training, and providing high-quality education. 

Over the past couple of years, VR has experienced several setbacks as well as positive strides. However, the potential benefits of this technology are massive, and we are only just scratching the surface of what’s possible. For example, imagine doctors being able to practice a surgery repeatedly until they feel confident enough without them having to worry about loss of life or you being able to take driving lessons from the comfort of your home. The future of VR is bright and will only get better with time as more companies begin to adopt this technology and hardware becomes more affordable and accessible.

They Taught Us AR

Though not as well-known as VR, this particular form of spatial computing has found its way into various innovations released in the past couple of years. Augmented reality (AR) is all about using computer-generated sensory stimuli to enhance an individual’s perception of reality. Simply put, AR uses technology to create a digital overlay that modifies how we see our current environment.

Several companies have now built their flagship products and services around AR technology. If the wide global acceptance these companies have received is any indication, we can say with much confidence that the worldwide market for AR is massive and begging to be exploited.

A classic example of this is Snapchat’s rise to prominence as a result of its camera filters. With Snapchat, you can select from countless artificially generated filters to create various visual and audio effects by focusing your mobile camera on a person or object. Another popular, although relatively new use case of AR is in the retail industry. Several stores now have apps that let customers preview different cloth combinations on their phones to make the best possible choice.

Smartphones are constantly being improved to increase their capacity to provide both hardware and software support for the new AR innovations as they occur. Similarly, wearables such as smartwatches and glasses have also seen large-scale development over the past few years.

In 2014, Google released a new AR-based product which they dubbed ‘Google glass.’ This product acted as an eyeglass that allows users to take pictures and videos or view information such as emails and texts. Although the rollout of this product was met with a high level of optimism, its performance in the market was not great.

Despite setbacks like these, there is still a strong belief in the ability of AR technology to drive innovative solutions globally. The worldwide market for wearables is expected to exceed 700 million units shipped out by 2026. AR is most certainly going to be a driver of the future and is not slowing down any time soon.

They Taught Us MR

Mixed reality (MR) is relatively new compared to its counterparts in the spatial computing space. The term ‘mixed reality’ became well-known when Microsoft released the HoloLens in 2016. However, MR was first introduced from a research article published in 1994 by Paul Milgram and Fumio Kishino. MR allows for both real and digital environments and objects to interact with each other. This technology lies between virtual reality and alternate reality, combining both aspects to create a new experience. For example, imagine placing a virtual coffee mug on a real table or interacting with a hologram while still in your living room. MR takes our perception of what we believe is possible with technology and stretches it even further.

Microsoft’s HoloLens appears to be championing the field of MR at the moment. The head-mounted display (HMD) device has several features, including cameras, projection lenses, and 3-dimensional speakers for audio. A unique aspect of the Microsoft HoloLens that best emphasizes the concept of MR is that the speakers do not shut out surrounding sound. HoloLens allows the user to perceive both digitally generated sound and sound coming from their environment. MR technology has been applied as an educational tool to create highly interactive lectures by many institutions. It has also been used in games such as Pokemon GO, Roboraid, and YoungConker. Another innovation built on MR tech, Holograms, has also seen increased use, with several technology companies and media outlets adopting this MR application.

VR vs. AR vs. MR

The distinction between all three forms of spatial computing is usually non-existent for most people. As a result, several blog posts and news articles have used each of these terms interchangeably, assuming they mean the same thing. However, VR, AR, and MR, although they share some similarities, are fundamentally different.

VR solely involves a complete interaction with a digital world. All types of computer-generated stimuli are geared towards immersing the individual in this digital environment. VR seeks to make users more conscious of this artificial environment than their actual surroundings. On the other hand, AR looks to modify an individual’s sensory perceptions to create an enhanced experience of their real-world surroundings. MR combines the best of both worlds, allowing users to be immersed in a digital environment while still interacting with their actual surroundings.

All three examples of spatial computing have seen a relatively massive amount of mainstream approval and are primarily believed to be pillars of the future by several industry leaders and experts. It’s evident that VR, AR, and MR, are changing the way we live, work, and interact with one another and with our surroundings. Many top companies have adopted alternate reality tech to create better products, improve sales, and solve complex problems, while many more will be joining the fray as time goes on. We can safely say that all forms of spatial computing would become more intertwined with our daily activities faster than we may have anticipated.

It’s important to understand that, though all the types of spatial computing can be equally effective and engaging, they are fundamentally different and suitable for various purposes depending on the nature of the product or service offered. So, for example, while some innovations would be better suited to VR, others may be perfect for AR or even MR.

VR: The Story So Far

Because of the futuristic nature of VR, it’s easy to assume that this technology is just beginning to rise to the limelight. However, VR tech has been developing gradually over the past 50 years and has served as the bedrock of several innovations that have shaped today’s world as we know it.

VR technology has always been ahead of its time. Even before the term ‘virtual reality’ was coined by Jaron Lanier in 1987, VR as a concept had already begun making great strides and had been incorporated into several inventions.

The Early 1900s – 1960s

We cannot begin to tell the story of VR without referring to the famous Sci-fi masterpiece published by Stanley Weinbaum in 1935. The book Pygmalion’s spectacles told the story of a character who dons a pair of glasses that lets him enter an imaginary world and interact with its characters. While this is generally believed to be the first introduction to the idea of spatial computing, it wasn’t until 1962 that the first-ever VR innovation was introduced. In 1962, Morton Heilig, a documentary filmmaker, patented his invention called “Sensorama.” The Sensorama was a movie theater that used screens, fans, audio devices, and odor emitters. Each worked in a specific way and time to stimulate the user’s senses and create an immersive viewing experience.

Though Heilig’s Sensorama couldn’t be developed further due to a lack of financial investment, it served as an eye-opener regarding the possibilities entrenched in VR, sparking the interest of various scientists and researchers as to its other use cases. Years of research finally yielded results when in 1966, the first notable mainstream use of VR tech was recorded. An engineer working with the US military, Thomas Furness, created a flight simulator for the American airforce. This invention was just the beginning of further landmark innovations in the VR space. Several other feats were recorded in the following years, chief amongst them being the creation first-ever HMD device referred to as the ‘Sword of Damocles’ by Ivan Sutherland in 1968.

Despite the challenges of this period, it laid the foundation for the blooming VR space we currently enjoy.

The 1970s – 1980s

This period was a time of consolidation for VR tech, and although there weren’t so many groundbreaking technologies, this decade saw several remarkable improvements on pre-existing VR technologies. In 1977, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) created the Aspen movie map, which we believe to be the first-ever successful attempt at interactive video. This invention, described as “a form of surrogate travel,” allowed users to tour Aspen, Colorado. Images of locations in Aspen were taken using a camera mounted to the top of a car. These images were used to create a digital interactive travel experience. Depending on their preference, users could choose to take a digital tour around the city in winter or fall.

 The 1990s

The 1990s saw VR tech start penetrating the public space with several attempts to apply this concept in gaming. The Virtuality group was the first to kickstart this move when they launched a series of arcade games in 1991 that used VR technology. With virtuality games, users could play real-time immersive games with a pair of VR glasses and a joystick. The same year, global gaming giant SEGA made public plans to release a VR headset that could be used with their popular SEGA mega drive console. Sadly, this device couldn’t launch for some reason.

In 1994, SEGA made another foray into the VR gaming space with the SEGA VR-1, an immersive rail shooter game installed in parks and SEGA world arcades. The following year, Nintendo, another major player in the gaming industry, released a portable virtual console that displayed 3D monochrome gaming graphics. However, user’s complaints about the product’s lack of colored graphics, high price tag, and poor software support meant that production of the console had to halt not too long after its release.

VR tech in the 1900’s also experienced improved applications in other industries asides from gaming. For example, in 1997, researchers from Georgia Tech and Emory University teamed up to develop Virtual Vietnam, an innovation used to simulate war zone situations for veterans dealing with PTSD.

VR in the 21st Century

Over the last few decades, all the hard work finally led to a tipping point in the early 2000s when VR gradually became one of the hottest topics for scientists, researchers, and other keen observers of the tech industry. As a result, this century has seen several immersive technologies come into the limelight. A perfect example is Google Streetview which was introduced in 2007 and modified to feature a stereoscopic 3D mode in 2010. Also, in the same year, the first version of what would later become one of the household names for VR headsets, the Oculus rift, was created. The Oculus rift was a significant improvement on pre-existing HMD’s with its several unique features signaling the start of a much-improved experience for lovers of VR. Four years later, Facebook bought the pioneering company Oculus VR for $2billion. Such a significant purchase spoke volumes about the tech giant’s belief that VR represents the future of innovation.

Since then, many other companies such as HTC, Amazon, Sony, and Samsung have developed their headsets and other related VR tech. If there’s anything we can observe from the over 15 million generated by Facebook’s Oculus quest in 2019, it’s that we are finally in the age of VR. Unlike in previous years, where it seemed that the public just wasn’t ready for the advancements in VR, it might just be the time for the technology to go mainstream.

They Taught Us What We Need for a Quality VR Experience

Whether it’s for gaming, education, or any other purpose, there are several tools you need to plug in and enjoy the best that VR has on offer. Dragons come in different shapes and sizes, and so does VR equipment. With VR, the quality of your experience largely depends on the sophistication of the HMD device you are using.

The market is saturated with many VR headsets that provide high-quality sound, video, and 3D stereoscopic images. VR lovers can plug in their headsets and enter into a whole new world without boundaries. Several notable brands such as Valve, Samsung, HTC, and Oculus, and relatively unknown brands have different options available. Apart from choosing a brand, you would also need to select the exact type of headset you would need. Headsets generally vary, each with its unique attributes and requirements. Here is an overview of the various types of VR headsets available so you can make a more informed decision.

Tethered VR Headsets

As the name implies, tethered headsets need to be plugged into a digital interface with cables. These headsets usually offer the best form of VR experience relative to other options available. However, despite the high-quality graphics and rich, immersive experience, users may experience some degree of inconvenience due to the reduced range of motion caused by the cables.

Tethered VR headsets also have more strict requirements in terms of computing ability and setup space. Although they can still work with computers with limited processing capacity, the quality of pixelation, graphics, and overall experience usually leaves a lot to be desired.

Opting for a VR headset usually means prioritizing an excellent gaming experience over cost, as these devices are generally more expensive than other headset types. Unfortunately, if you don’t have a high-performance PC or a hefty budget, you may have to explore other options on the market.

There are many tethered headsets to choose from, like HTC’s Vive Pro, Oculus’ rift, and Samsung’s Odyssey.

Standalone VR Headsets

These headsets are a favorite of individuals that place a premium on convenience and ease of use. Standalone headsets don’t require any external support to get started. They come fully equipped with processors, storage space, sensors, and a battery so users can get going as fast as possible. Unlike tethered headsets, users can move around as much as they want since the standalone headsets are entirely wireless.

While this HMD scores high on convenience, it performs relatively poorly in terms of graphics when compared to tethered headsets. For example, the Mirage Solo by Lenovo, one of the best standalone headsets in the market, still doesn’t match the performance of HMDs like the HTC Vive Pro or the Oculus Rift. In addition, untethered HMD’s usually require frequent charging, another potential downside to this choice.

Popular headsets choices in this category include HTC’s Vive Focus, Lenovo’s Mirage Solo, Oculus’ Quest, and Pico Interactive’s Neo.

Smartphone VR Headsets

Generally believed to be the least immersive of all available VR headsets, smartphone VR headsets allow people to use their phones as a VR display device. Usually, these headsets have lenses that enhance the view of the images coming from the mobile phone screen and make it more immersive. Users can slide their phones into the headset and begin using it. High-end smartphones are developed with the capacity to provide a relatively pleasurable VR experience. However, individuals with lower range android or iOS phones may find smartphone VR headsets a lot less appealing. If you are looking to purchase a smartphone headset, you may want to consider options like Google’s Daydream View, MERGE’s VR goggles, or Samsung’s Gear VR headsets.

VR: Beyond Gaming

When you hear about VR, the first thing that probably comes to mind aside from the headsets is the games. In recent times, many VR applications that have received wide acclaim have been in the gaming and entertainment space. Games such as AstroBot, Beat Saber, and Danger goat, have kept VR lovers spellbound with top-notch graphics and beautifully crafted gameplay.

The performance of VR in the gaming industry has somewhat taken the shine off the massive strides this technology is making in other areas. Nevertheless, VR tech is being adopted by several industries such as business, tourism, education, and healthcare. Although many of these innovations are not as popular as VR innovations in gaming, the signs are still very positive.

Automobile companies like Ford have embraced VR tech and incorporated it into their manufacturing process. Using a HMD, workers can look through all the various internal and external features of a car and spot potential areas of modification before it’s released into the market.

Similarly, VR has been used by military personnel in places like the US and the UK for training simulations. This approach has been very productive as VR is capable of exposing recruits to different combat scenarios and enabling them to sharpen their skills without any collateral damage. VR has also been helpful in the treatment of veterans dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

VR tech is producing high value and receiving notable acclaim in several industries. As a result, we can be confident that the narrative of VR as just a fancy gaming and entertainment innovation is bound to change in the coming years.

Filming

Storytelling via film can only be considered a success when the filmmaker can captivate his audience and get them fully engaged in the story. The colossal success of ideas such as 3D movies and CGI shows that viewers are constantly seeking quality content that is highly realistic and with outstanding cinematography that they can enjoy. Leveraging VR technology allows filmmakers to improve the quality of their storytelling and keep viewers hooked.

VR movies give the audience a more profound experience of the quality of the cinematography, allowing them to fully connect with the emotions, sights, and sounds of their favorite movies. By strapping on a headset, viewers move from being observers to participants, so they can appreciate much of the complexity that goes into movie production.

For filmmakers, VR is a significant advantage in the movie creation process. Cameras like the Samsung Gear 360 now provide the opportunity to record scenes from every possible viewpoint instead of having to shoot just a few angles and do so many takes.

Social Media

Facebook’s $2billion acquisition of Oculus in 2014 indicated a possible shift towards VR as a tool for social media interaction. So it wasn’t much of a surprise when the company launched ‘Spaces’ in 2017 as their first attempt at using VR to connect individuals via social media. However, Facebook later jettisoned this project in favor of another social VR platform which they dubbed ‘Horizon.’

Asides from Facebook’s Horizon, several other VR-based social media apps such as VR chat, Altspace, and Big screen have also experienced a considerable increase in the number of active users in recent times. Social media has been able to bridge the connection gap and has allowed individuals from all over the world to share ideas and experiences. However, the social media scene is ready to take the next step, and VR is the driving force behind this new wave. Regular social media platforms, although engaging, still fail to simulate the feeling of presence that comes from face-to-face interactions. With social VR, companies can remedy this limitation and make social media exchanges a more fulfilling experience.

Sports

The sporting industry is another sector that is benefitting massively from the immense improvements in VR technology. Several top sports teams currently use VR to train players and increase supporter engagement. Now players can practice plays, run through various scenarios, and hone their skills without getting into a field. For teams that rely heavily on intensive video replays, this development is a significant boost. Most pro-athletes quickly get bored with long hours of video footage. VR takes these sessions and makes them more interesting by allowing the players to step onto the pitch and review previous games. Top ranking teams such as the New England Patriots and San Francisco 49ers have incorporated VR technology into their setup and have seen positive responses.

Fans are also not left out as VR now allows them to see games from previously unimaginable viewpoints. Although VR streaming for live sporting events is still in its developmental stages, the progress recorded by relatively new companies such as NextVR is proof that it could become a lot more advanced faster than we imagined.

Tourism

Without a doubt, we can easily say that VR tech was designed for the travel industry. The advent of Covid-19 further emphasized the need for technology that allows individuals to experience their favorite locations without getting on a plane. VR has taken the travel and tourism sector by storm and added a new dynamic for travelers and marketers alike. Travel bloggers can now use VR filming and photography equipment to generate immersive videos and stereoscopic images for their online visitors. Similarly, travel lovers can also take a tour of some of the best beaches, hotels, and other landmark sites from the comfort of their home, without having to bother about the expenses and other inconveniences that arise as a result of travel. VR tourism is a fantastic marketing tool for travel agencies and countries looking to increase foreign visits. By giving individuals a foretaste, these agencies increase the likelihood of receiving visitors.

Medicine

There are various aspects of medicine that require VR. Healthcare is a broad field consisting of several moving parts working together to accomplish a common goal of preventing disease and delivering quality care to patients. Each aspect of medicine is vital and benefits from the improvements that advancements in VR technology have brought. However, one of the most extensive contributions of VR to healthcare is the substantial improvement it has brought in medical training. Because of VR, medical practitioners can adopt a more hands-on approach to learning instead of crudely memorizing information from textbooks and other types of academic materials. For instance, surgical interns can now perform a more in-depth study of the human anatomy using a HMD that gives them a detailed view. This learning process is enhanced by the ability of VR to record past medical procedures in high quality and from various angles so students can critically observe and improve their skills.

Asides from surgical practice, VR is beneficial in other forms of medicine such as psychotherapy. For example, VR has shown relatively positive outcomes in its use to treat patients who have PTSD. It also has become a massive tool for encouraging healthy habits and practices like exercise.

Adult Entertainment

Yet another market experiencing an upturn thanks to VR tech is the adult entertainment industry. VR porn has emerged as a popular choice for several adult content consumers globally. Alluding to this fact, Andreas Hvonopoulus of Naughty America has described the innovation as a ‘game-changer.’ 

Although the Oculus store doesn’t allow VR porn, several porn studios have experienced an increase in turnover since its inception. With their HMD’s, viewers can go beyond taking a front-row seat and feel like they are actually in the thick of events. Although the growth metrics of this industry are difficult to analyze, the sheer increase in the number of VR adult content sites indicates that there is a growing audience for VR adult content all over the world. Adult content producers looking to distinguish themselves from the thousands or even millions of porn sites out there have turned to VR as a source of new and rich content for their teeming audience. The adult entertainment VR industry has seen tremendous growth since 2014 when Ela Darling recorded her debut VR porn video. Since then, many others have adopted the technology to provide their viewers with more enjoyable experiences and diverse content.

Where It’s All Going

Despite all that’s happened with VR in the early 21st century, it still hasn’t reached its full potential yet. We remain optimistic and excited about what the future holds for VR tech, even though the truth is that it still has a long way to go before it becomes the force that we know it can be. The next couple of years will be very defining for VR as it will determine if the developments of recent times have been a tiny ripple or the start of a massive tidal wave. Ten years ago, it would have seemed crazy to suggest the significant numbers that VR headsets and wearables are doing commercially. However, VR devices have smashed sales projections, and virtual reality-based companies such as Oculus VR have been acquired at jaw-dropping prices.

VR headsets are now even becoming more affordable, and more people will be looking to get their hands on them as the trend continues. While these massive strides are newsworthy and worth celebrating, the future of VR technology remains the focus for tech giants and industry leaders. Facebook, in particular, has been very vocal about its belief in VR tech and its capacity to become a ubiquitous phenomenon in due time.  Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s CEO, has made no secret of his vision for VR to become something that everyone can enjoy and access. This burning desire has led to many portable VR products such as Oculus Go in 2014 and Oculus quest in 2019.

In 2019, Sony announced that the Playstation VR had recorded a whopping 5million units sold. Although no official numbers were released, several analysts believe that the sales numbers for the Oculus quest may even exceed this by a wide margin.

Bolstered by these sales numbers, we can expect these tech industry giants to consolidate their hold in the VR space by releasing new VR-based products. We also hope to see collaborations between tech companies and key players in other industries to see how VR can provide innovative solutions to complex problems.

As has always been, companies always rise to fill a sizeable need in the market, and the VR space will not be an exception. Companies such as Immersive VR education are already exploiting this opportunity by using VR to provide top-quality education to various individuals in the education sector. RE-FLEKT is also another VR-based startup that seeks to help businesses to develop their own VR applications. Many others exist, such as Psious in healthcare, Ejaw in gaming, and Black Box in fitness. Several other VR startups are expected to launch in the next couple of years in response to the improved reception towards VR tech in various sectors.

VR has been able to build momentum and is looking set to achieve mainstream status quickly. Although it’s impossible to predict the twists and turns that will rock this industry in the coming years, we can say with some degree of certainty that the future looks bright for VR.

Call to Action

So, whether you are a budding VR enthusiast or a long-time user of VR tech, there are so many reasons to be excited. There are several products and services you can begin to enjoy now, from games to shopping apps, movies, and much more. And the best part is, you don’t have to worry so much about your budget either. Low-cost VR headsets exist on the market with a price range below $100. So there’s no need to get left behind. There’s always a way to incorporate VR to make your experiences more memorable, no matter your interests. It’s time for you to get in on the action and step into a new world with digitally generated content that’s sure to leave you speechless.

Many people are taking advantage of science to stretch the boundaries of what we believe to be reality. You, too, can start doing the same today.

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About the author

Tyler Lindell - Like Ginkgo for your Virtual Self