The last 25 years have seen virtual reality technology make exceptional leaps forward. Thanks in no small part to considerable advancements in processing technology, we’ve seen immersive VR systems improve in quality, ease-of-use and portability.
The days of a multi-tonne and unwieldy Virtuality arcade machine, with an elderly Commodore Amiga at its core, being delivered and moved into place with a crane are no more. VR has long broken out of the arcade, and moved away from being a novelty item. However, the seeds sown by those trailblazing technologies born in the arcade have helped shape the present day VR landscape.
With VR increasingly used in everything from military applications to modelling and gaming, there is little question the technology has come of age. Virtual heads-up displays in fighter aircraft have helped shape the future consumer use of VR for gaming and graphics, showing that realistic VR rendering of environments can be done fast enough and accurately enough to keep people immersed. What’s more, the path has been set for its future as both a mainstream consumer experience as well as having a myriad of applications in the B2B space.
From novelty to reality
Cumbersome arcade-based equipment as a means to experience VR has become largely redundant thanks to ubiquitous access to high-definition, realistic VR content, delivered to users via affordable consumer headsets and even with mobile devices. The emergence of dedicated content platforms is also simplifying adoption and use of VR content, placing everything from games to video in one place, making it easier to find, navigate, pay for and play. The processing power offered by smartphones, combined with the likes of Google Cardboard has provided an entry-level way for everyone to experience VR experiences and content, but with limitations. These devices have limited graphics capability, so rendering virtual environments on-the-fly is a challenge. The VR experiences are either small ‘worlds’ or more limited to pre-recorded 360-degree video views that a viewer can explore. Nonetheless, it has provided a valuable showcase for why VR has a long-term future.
At the higher end, dedicated headsets that connect to PCs or consoles offer a lot more and are falling in cost. The price of an Oculus Rift unit is currently £400, with competition set to bring that down even more. These headsets can focus on being the sensory interface, while the machine it is attached to can do the heavy lifting, allowing more advanced, realistic and immersive games and content to be developed and used.
It is big business too. Some 2.2 billion gamers across the globe were expected to generate $108.9 billion in game revenues in 2017. This represents an increase of $7.8 billion, or 7.8%, from the year before. Digital game revenues will account for $94.4 billion or 87% of the global market. While mobile is the most lucrative segment, with smartphone and tablet gaming growing 19% year over year to $46.1 billion, claiming 42% of the market, the PC and console game markets continue to be a highly lucrative space thanks to their functional superiority. Together, PCs and console gaming were set to generate $63 billion in 2017.
Taking VR from gaming to entertainment
Gaming is the obvious application for VR in the consumer space, given the financial opportunities. However, it is not the only application in the home.
Something that has been talked about with wide-eyed wonder is fully immersive VR movies and events. While using VR as a delivery platform for computer-generated images is today’s mainstay, the next step is to use VR headsets as a way to place the viewer in the centre of the action. Giving them an experience akin to being at the game, or in the front row of a concert, play or conference. The ‘isolation’ element previously associated with VR of the past is overcome by creating a strong social element within the environment, something that emerging platform providers are putting front and centre with the inclusion of mobile companion apps and easy-to-use in-platform community and peer engagement features.
Think of 3D films, then think of actual, true 3D – a film, television or event environment you can explore at your own pace, looking at the action from different angles and paying attention to whatever you choose to. It has the potential to change content consumption forever. It also offers non-gaming content creators an avenue for their next stage of evolution. We’ve already moved from standard definition to high definition, then to ultra-high definition. There’s not much more we can do with visual quality to woo consumers to buy or rent material. The next logical step is sensory, rather than even more clarity.
Consumer applications aside, further advances will be enabled by business and specialist use of VR. In the same way that the use of VR heads-up displays in fighter pilot helmets has seen technology transfer into today’s consumer headsets, so will other planned uses of VR propel technologies into the consumer space.
VR is being trialled increasingly for remote surgery and healthcare, as well as for visualisation of disease study and drug creation. Space exploration is benefitting from VR modelling, using data collected from deep space probes, to enable immersive exploration of the stars from Earth. Building on the fighter pilot helmets, VR has the potential to provide cheaper, more immersive and easily updated training environments for pilots. No longer will an airline have to invest in dedicated simulators for each aircraft type. A generic rig combined with VR could mean pilots can be trained on everything from a microlight to a Dreamliner in the same place.
Finally, perhaps one of the most compelling future uses for VR is in compassionate care. From people who are housebound to those with physical, sensory and learning challenges, VR could be an outlet for them to explore, learn, cope and interact more than they currently can. It can offer a simulated way to experience the world at their own pace, with equal access and abilities. And that would be the most compelling thing about the future of VR – it can change lives for the better.