Are we nearing a tipping point for consumer Virtual Reality?

I think we are getting closer. And by close I mean, still a few years away. Like the Palm smartphone was in 2003. Although this technology has a long history, it never did quite made it out of the realm of academics and technology enthousiasts. However, times are changing. Pricing is coming down, the hardware to use VR might already sit in your pocket and mainstream media are slowly starting to hop on the bandwagon.

In the early days of VR in the 1990s when gloves and goggles were super cool it was all about big head mounted displays with a lot of clunky wires and cables. In 1965, Ivan Sutherland (a computer scientist and internet pioneer) wrote an essay titled The Ultimate Display. He envisioned “a room within which the computer can control the existence of matter.” He demonstrated an extremely preliminary iteration of such a device, a periscope-like video headset called the “Sword of Damocles,” in 1968.

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VR has come a long way since then. Today, two companies stand ahead of the pack, ready to put a virtual reality kit in the hands of regular consumers: Sony and Oculus, the latter was bought by Facebook for two billion dollars. Is VR ready for the mainstream market? No. Are we heading there? I think yes, here are three reason why.

Cheap hardware
The Oculus is working towards a consumer version of it’s Rift product with no clear launch date. However, their first SDK was $300 and the more recent second one that shipped this summer was $350. Oculus however, always claimed they are aiming for a $300 consumer price tag and that’s pretty cheap. In order to reach consumers they also teamed up with Samsung. The partnership will be launching a hardware set up that will cost $199.

Hardware you already own
The device by OR and Samsung uses Samsung’s Note 4 phablet as a screen. A strategy that seems fruitful for next generation VR-devices. Smartphones are really leveling up when it comes to screen size and quality, graphical capabilities and processing power. The same approach goes for Google Cardboard, which is just a foldable sheet of cardboard with a pair of lenses that works with a Google Nexus 4 and 5, Motorola Moto X, Samsung Galaxy S4 and S5, or Samsung Galaxy Nexus. HTC One, Motorola Moto G, and Samsung Galaxy S3 are partially compatible.

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It seems like the smartphone will remain the central hub to our digital life for some time. Connecting to other devices such as wearables, cars and smart home appliances. If VR-devices are just plug and play hardware to connect to a device you already own, this really lowers the bar to use it.

Mainstream media are joining the movement.
Since Facebook is more about pushing content from pages then showing updates from friends, I think it’s safe to say they have become just another media network. If the masses are your target group and you have over 2 billion users, this is a huge potential market for Oculus. A more traditional network like NBC now offers a specially designed virtual reality experience on the road to give fans of Voice a chance to physically sit in one of the infamous swirling chairs and virtually experience what the judges see during a blind audition, as well as interact with fellow judges Gwen Stefani, Pharrell Williams, Adam Levine and Blake Shelton.

Then there’s gaming, the biggest mainstream medium of the new generation. VR and gaming are a match made in heaven and gaming will be more immersive than ever before using VR-hardware. While Oculus also has games, Sony is in the lead here. Their VR system is currently codenamed Project Morpheus, and will work with PlayStation 4. While still in prototype form, Suhei Yoshida (president of Sony Worldwide Studios) says that Morpheus is the “culmination of our work over the last three years to realize our vision of VR for games, and to push the boundaries of play.”

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Then again, gaming is only one of the possible applications. VR is also great for all kinds of simulations, training and other graphic learning environments. That’s why it’s so great the hardware is getting cheaper and more accessible. As soon as the technology is more widespread, new ideas from new people will spread and new applications will be build.

Here’s a slide from Sony’s presentation introducing project Morpheus to end this article. I couldn’t agree more.

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(Source for the last two images are the good people of The Verge, the first two images come from the awesome Computer Science History Museum that I visited last year.)

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