Virtual Reality for the Mildly Curious

2016 is the year that millions of people around the world are experiencing virtual reality for the first time. The reason isn't so much that the quality of the VR experience has changed; this technology has been blowing people's minds since at least the late 1980s. It's that the price has changed by three orders of magnitude. We’re now seeing a great flywheel effect, as consumer ready headsets flood into the wild. 

This is not just a new toy for the geeks. 

It's the emergence of a new mass medium, on par with the emergence of film in the 1900s, radio in the 1920s, television in the 1950s, the internet in the 1990s and mobile in the 2000s. It's also the arrival of a new kind of computing platform, one that has the ability to simultaneously upend desktop PCs, laptops, and phones. That's why the big tech companies are paying such close attention; at last week's Oculus developer conference, Mark Zuckerberg predicted that VR will become a phenomenon on par with the smartphone, and spoke of one day seeing a billion people regularly using it. This is what disruption on a vast scale looks like.

Of course, most consumers, even gamers, haven’t tried VR even once. That's all about to change for a few reasons. The first is technical. Right now VR setups are still clunky. Within a few years though, they'll be cordless, with significant advancements in pixel density, field of view and depth of focus. They'll have what's called ‘foveated rendering’ — tracking that efficiently targets high resolution information at the fovea in the eye; head related transfer function audio, which injects sound straight into the ear canal to make it seem like its coming from a specific point, and haptic feedback that's sensitive enough to allow the user to feel the fragility of an egg or the squishiness of a rubber duck. A 2021 VR device will make today’s gear look ancient by comparison.

VR's future in 5 years according to Michael Abrash, Chief Scientist of Oculus

VR's future in 5 years according to Michael Abrash, Chief Scientist of Oculus

The evolution of VR isn't happening in isolation either. It's arriving at the same time as a host of other disruptive technologies. Chief amongst those is VR's cousin, augmented reality, which allows us to overlay digital images on the world in front of us, and a little further down the line mixed reality, where the boundaries between the real and digital worlds start getting very blurry. Taken together, this family of technologies represents the emergence of an entirely new way of interacting with our computing resources. They're arriving in parallel with cheap and ubiquitous artificial intelligence, which is going to be essential for everything from the smallest level of recreating physics in a VR environment to being able to recognize gestures or movements.

We're also about to experience a conceptual revolution. VR's novelty value as a new medium means that we don't need to do much with it yet. In the early days of film, for example, the novelty of a moving image meant that audiences were entertained by simply sitting and watching a bullet come out of a gun. It took Georges Méliès a decade to bust film out of its box. In the same way, right now we're all content to watch whales and jellyfish swim passively around us in VR, and our VR filmmakers are still using linear narratives. It's going to take years before we figure out what the new norms are. No amount of design thinking or pre-visualizing is going to be able to solve this. You can't invent the medium and the content at the same time. Artists are going to need to get their 10,000 hours in first. Once they do though, the arrival of 360 degree, interactive storytelling is going to shake the very notion of how people respond to characters and stories to its core.

And finally, this is all happening in a world where half the planet is online and connected, and where people have already had a decade to get familiar with the idea of social media. This, ultimately, is the X factor, because the best experiences in VR involve at least one other person, and just a few more people make it exponentially better. It’s a network effect: the joy of VR is proportional to the square of the number of people sharing it. That means VR will be the most social medium; and it's going to finally make sense when we get millions of people spending time with friends, family, colleagues, and new acquaintances having amazing experiences together no matter the what the physical distance between them.


Closely related to VR is augmented reality. Here we are singing about it (because why not).