Although it may sound like a new, innovative technology, virtual reality has tried its luck in the world of video games once before. Sega launched its VR headset for the Megadrive console (a bit like today’s Sony PlayStation VR) in 1991, and several immersive VR pods and headsets were released in the following year. Computer Gaming World, one of the most prestigious gaming magazines, predicted “affordable VR” by 1994. Nintendo released its “Virtual Boy”, and Forte released its VFX1, a PC virtual reality headset supported by games like Quake, System Shock, and Descent, later that year. Then the VR fever winded down, and headsets were forgotten for almost two decades.
The first prototype of Oculus Rift saw the light of day in 2010, under the hands of Palmer Luckey. The project rekindled the smouldering interest in virtual reality. In a few years, hundreds of companies started developing VR-related products, ranging from untethered headsets to software and games. Giants like Facebook, Google, and Microsoft, along with startups and smaller tech companies have heard the call of cyberspace.
Today, we have three competing gaming headsets – the Facebook-backed Oculus Rift, HTC’s Vive (backed by Valve), and Sony’s PlayStation VR – on the market, and a series of untethered ones relying on smartphones for a screen. Content-wise, we have PC games and smartphone apps supporting virtual reality, from shooters and exploration titles to the virtual real money roulette set to be released at the Wild Jack Casino in the coming years. But VR goes beyond movies, arcades, and Wild Jack games – it has applications in medicine, social science, education, military, engineering and design.
But will it ever become mainstream?
With all the buzz around virtual reality, one would expect the sales of headsets and games to skyrocket. Yet they are still bulky, nauseating, and inconvenient, not to mention expensive – even though Oculus has reduced the price of its headset twice since its initial release. Untethered headsets like Samsung’s Gear VR (also made by Oculus) are far more successful, not least because of their far lower price but they don’t offer the experience some would expect from a VR headset. Besides, today’s smartphones – that these headsets use as a display – don’t have the resolution or the content that could really make VR a hit with the masses.
Virtual reality seems to have arrived too soon once again, just like it did in the 1990s. There are still a lot of things to sort out, like reducing the nausea-inducing effect of playing or getting rid of the cables shackling players to their computers. There are some promising projects, like Microsoft’s HoloLens, a headset with a “holographic computer” built into it, projecting a digital layer on the real world. Mainstream is, in turn, not the word we can use for the place where it is right now.