If you have ever tried VR, you are definitely familiar with the childlike sense of euphoria I experienced the first time I put on a VR headset. The room that was no bigger than a studio living room suddenly transformed into what looked like the roof of Nakatomi Plaza and I was off shooting at flying droids. Giggling like an insane person, I was so excited that I could have stayed the rest of the week there!
Pooling our money, my roommate and I excitedly bought an Oculus Rift, and after playing with it maybe a handful of times we put it aside to never touch it again (except to show it to guests) and went back to playing games on PC. Hmm…so what happened to all that excitement?
Dude, Where’s My VR?
This was back in 2016, so a lot has changed since then, but I suspect many people who have just as eagerly tried VR, just as easily lost their excitement. In fact, this psychological phenomenon we experience is so common that there is a graph for it: The Gartner Hype Cycle.
This graph is used to represent the maturity, adoption, and social application of emerging technologies. It’s utilized more so by industry professionals to understand whether it is risky to invest in a new technology product, but it fundamentally applies to human psychology. The process goes a bit like this:
- The ‘You have my curiosity..’ Phase: A potential technology breakthrough happens. There may be some proof-of-concept stories that the media jumps on and we become vaguely interested.
- The ‘Shut up and take my money!’ Phase: The media starts focusing on early success stories that do not have long term sustainability. We, the public, become super excited about this new kid on the block. Even your Uber driver starts talking about buying some of that Bitcoin and your friend preorders the Magic Leap 1 to watch that majestic virtual whale.
- The ‘Bro what happened to Bitcoin?’ Phase: Whether it’s the ease of use, the features, or the applications the technology doesn’t have long-term sustainability, and most of the companies fail. We are either let down or have already lost interest.
- The ‘Wait a second!’ Phase: Thanks to some true believers who have continued working on the tech ✊ new benefits to the enterprise are revealed and we get a better grasp on what that technology means to various industries and humanity. Now, the Googles, Amazons, and Apples of the world start heavily getting into the field.
- The ‘Oh yeah, I have 4 Echo Dots at home’ Phase: Your grandmother just discovers the bunny ears face-filter on Instagram and facetimes you to tell you about it, and you give a knowing smile. The technology has become mainstream and totally normalized.
Before we get back to the main question though, I would actually like to take you on a quick trip with my DeLorean.
A Brief History of VR
If you’re one of the unlucky (lucky now, you can fetch a pretty penny) ones to get your hands on a Nintendo Virtual Boy back in the 90s, you know that VR has been around before.
OSSIC has a wonderful Medium article on the whole history of VR with lots of pictures, so I won’t go into detail, but as promised in the title here’s a brief bullet point history:
- Pre-1900s: There’s pretty much nada here obviously except for the Stereoscope which Charles Wheatstone invented in 1838. It basically produces a 3D image effect using your brain to combine two slightly different images.
- 1920 — 1930: Waaaay before Microsoft Flight Simulator, Edwin Link invented a large-scale flight simulator to train airmen. You’re not really seeing anything in this, but the idea was to simulate reality.
- 1950 — 1970: In 1962, Morton Heilig invented what is considered one of the earliest true VR systems. It was this huge machine called the Sensorama. And in 1968, Ivan Sutherland and his student Bob Sproull created the first head-mounted display (HMD) for use in immersive applications. It was called The Sword of Damocles, maybe because it was enormous.
- 1970 —1990: The term ‘Virtual Reality’ (VR) was actually coined during this period in 1989 by Jaron Lanier, CEO of VPL Research. VPL created a bunch of gear for VR and one of them became Mattel’s Power Glove for Nintendo which now has a cult following.
- 1990 — 2000: This is the generation of Sega VR and Nintendo Virtual Boy! While these also failed, they have pretty much been the foundations for the headsets of today.
- 2000 — Present: I’m sure we’ve all wasted time looking at what our street looked like in Google Street View instead of looking out the window. The stereoscopic 3D mode of it was launched in 2010 and also the first iteration of the Oculus Rift came then too. 2014 was the launch of the Google Cardboard and the rest we’re experiencing now.
So, as you can see, VR has been around for some time now; coming and going and sort of repeating the first 3 stages of the Gartner Hype Cycle. I’ll leave this gem here as well, I bet you don’t remember this scene from Monster’s Inc which was released back in 2001.
Back to the Future
Why did my roommate and I stop playing with our Oculus Rift? To tell you the truth, it just took too long for us to set it up each time. Calibrating the trackers, adjusting the interpupillary distance (IPD), moving furniture, and so on and so forth. Whereas on console or PC you just click one button and voilà! VR just wasn’t there yet.
Now to our main question: Is VR here to stay (this time around)? I strongly believe so. A lot of companies had to come and go between 2016 and 2020 and some are most likely on their way out now, but today there’s something different. We now have standalone 6 degrees of freedom (6DoF) VR headsets. That means that you can truly walk around untethered to any computer in a completely virtual environment. How cool is that?! And the numbers support this theory as well. The Oculus Quest 2 was preordered five times more than the first Quest, completely surpassing the expectations of the company.
“Pre-orders have outpaced the original Quest pre-orders by more than 5x and have surpassed our expectations.” — Mark Zuckerberg
I’m personally excited once again! The price points of the headsets are dropping while they are improving, multiple companies are developing massively multiplayer VR worlds, and I’m already curious about what Apple’s VR headset is going to look like when it arrives in 2022. I can’t wait to see what’s in store (ba-dum-tss!).
Great Scott! Look at the time, I’ve already kept you for far too long. The short answer is yes, yes I think that VR will stay this time around and that we’re rapidly heading for a new digital medium. See you in the OASIS!
Do you think VR is here to stay? Did you fall in love with Ready Player One like I did? Let me know what you think or tell me about a different technology you think is in the Hype Cycle right now ✌️