From Virtuality to reality: How virtual reality will change everything in 2016
It’s been almost 30 years since Dr Jonathan Waldern founded a tiny company called W. Industries to develop a “virtual reality” system – which included a head-mounted display (HMD), data gloves, a tracking system and associated software. I still have vivid memories of making a trip to Bristol to try a prototype. How could I refuse an invitation to experience the future?
Later, in 1993, the company – now called Virtuality – was floated on the London Stock Exchange. Its shares shot up from 170p to 315p on the first day, making Waldern a multimillionaire. By this time, the firm had marketable games such as Dactyl Nightmare, in which you battled a green dinosaur, and Grid Busters, a robot shoot-’em-up. If you’re of a certain age, you may have played such games in London’s Trocadero, or the Embarcadero in San Francisco, or in similar arcade malls in the USA, Japan or Australia. If you’d been pre-sold VR by science fiction – such as William Gibson’s Neuromancer – you had to have a go.
But the technology never made it further than those early games. Virtual reality crashed and burned.
Virtual reality was well before its time
The basic strategy had seemed sound: consumers would experience VR in malls and arcades, and this would encourage them to buy their own headsets. But the games business failed to deliver. Atari planned to release a Virtuality-based headset to go with its Jaguar games console, but pulled out. Sega promoted its $200 Sega VR headset for the Mega Drive console at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in 1993, but it was never launched. At CES in 1995, Nintendo launched a monochrome VR system called Virtual Boy. It soon wished it hadn’t, though: Virtual Boy flopped, and was cancelled the following year.
Virtuality then did deals with Philips and Japan’s Takara to launch a $299 Scuba headset, which was released in 1997 and apparently sold more than 55,000 units. That’s impressive for a system with a 320 x 240 resolution, but as an Amazon reviewer noted: “Today, it’s all too clear that Philips totally dropped the ball here and basically released a product that wasn’t ready for prime time.”
Did the first wave of VR arrive before its time? Yes. Is now the time? Maybe. The industry’s hopes are focused on December 2016. Starship’s Paul Hollywood, who has been developing VR and video game software for decades, told me: “Christmas 2016 is going to be the first VR Christmas. You’ll have the headsets on sale and there’ll be a wave of content.”
Whether there’ll be a second VR Christmas remains to be seen, but billions of dollars are being invested in anticipation, such as the $2 billion that Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg paid for Oculus VR last year. That’s a chunky sum of cash for a firm that started on Kickstarter and has yet to launch a consumer product, but it reflects VR’s status as the current golden child of technology.
Last year, a Sophic Capital report, Virtual Reality: A Virtual Goldmine for Investors, suggested the VR market could be worth $7 billion (around £4.5 billion) – $2.3 billion in hardware and $4.7 billion in software – by 2018. It also predicted headset sales would grow from 200,000 to “about 39 million over five years”.
Gartner research director Brian Blau has also predicted that “virtual worlds will have transitioned from the fringe to the mainstream” by 2018, and that more than 25 million HMDs will have been sold. This doesn’t include phone-based headsets or non-electronic models such as Google Cardboard. Blau doesn’t expect a rapid take-up because of a shortage of mainstream content, but he does expect that there will be more action in the next 18 months than in the past 18 years.
I confess to a feeling of déjà vu. Today, we have another garage-style startup that has made its founders rich, except it’s called Oculus VR rather than Virtuality. And we still think gamers will kickstart sales of HMDs, only this time our hopes are pinned on the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, and Sony’s PlayStation VR, rather than Nintendo, Sega and Atari.
But there are two important differences this time. The first is that we have almost ubiquitous high-speed communications of the sort that didn’t exist in the dial-up world of the 1990s. Today, we can stream VR data from almost anywhere in the world, rather than getting it on a games cartridge or a CD-ROM. Real-time conferencing, 3D commerce and virtual tourism are real possibilities, even if we no longer want to set up virtual homesteads in Second Life.
The second major difference is that, thanks to more than 30 years of Moore’s law, we now have so much computer power that even a mobile phone can create a good VR experience.
Waldern’s first system was based on the Commodore Amiga, which had sophisticated graphics chips but limited resolution, to say the least: if your eyesight was that bad, you’d be legally blind. Today’s VR systems are a world apart. In terms of games, it’s somewhat like comparing id Software’s original Wolfenstein 3D (1992) with Wolfenstein: The OId Blood (2015).
There is, of course, another point to this comparison. In August 2013, id co-founder John Carmack, the father of first-person shooters, joined Oculus as chief technology officer. He’s worked on both the Oculus Rift and the related Samsung Gear VR, and to quote VR evangelist Dan Page from Opposable Games: “If John Carmack’s got something to do with it, it’s going to be good. The guy’s a wizard.”
More new systems could appear, but at present it looks like Christmas 2016 will be a straight fight between the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, with PlayStation VR picking up PS4 users.
Oculus VR has Facebook money, but the HTC Vive could get a head start if it launches this year. Ordinary consumers could go for Samsung’s Gear VR as a relatively painless way to explore VR – the catch being that the cheapish headset requires an expensive Samsung phone.