Virtual Reality — A Groundbreaking Luxury?

Wednesday 12 October 2016, 09:30 AM

Michael Briers
Journalist , Freelance

  • Virtual-Reality-Large

It’s been described as revolutionary, mind-blowing and at times, a little nauseating, but what exactly is virtual reality? And can the technology triumph anew?    


We say anew because, quite frankly, virtual reality has been around before — since the early 1950s, to be exact, when the mere thought of surrounding oneself in a digital, artificial environment drew comparisons to far-flung science fiction. 

In those intervening years, VR pioneers have transformed science fiction into science fact, expanding the horizons of digital rendering and 3D technology to engineer experiences that are surreal, mind-boggling and legitimately ground-breaking. 

Considered a luxury at the outset, thanks to heightened competition across the board — a rising tide lifts all boats, and all that! Virtual reality is becoming more and more accessible with every year that passes. From the Oculus Rift to Sony’s PlayStation VR, Samsung’s Gear headsets to the low-budget Google Cardboard, the VR market is a crowded one, and though the technology isn’t likely to break into the mainstream for another two-to-three years, virtual reality is, without question, the biggest and arguably most important tech story of 2016. 
Why? Because the proliferation of computer technology in the 21st century has enabled the creation of lightweight virtual reality headsets that are both viable and affordable to the average consumer, finally matching that initial vision that turned heads and raised eyebrows during the mid-50s. Though it’s not exactly apples to apples, 20 years ago a mobile phone was deemed a luxury product, reserved only for the one percent of the one percent; now, there are literally more mobile devices than people. 

Source: Connected UK

Can virtual reality enjoy a similar trajectory to success? Unlikely. Even with support from industry giants Google and Facebook, VR simply can’t perform the vast amount of tasks carried out by your typical smartphone and is therefore not considered a must-have product — not yet, at least.  

It’s currently being marketed as so, too. The elevator pitch? Virtual reality is dubbed as “the computer-generated simulation of a three-dimensional image or environment that can be interacted with in a seemingly real or physical way.”

It’s escapism 101, and since the virtual reality renaissance took hold a few years ago, the tech has adorned the front cover of Time magazine, sparked a VR arms race in the gaming industry, and even prompted Facebook to shell out upwards of $2 billion to acquire Oculus VR in 2014, the parent company behind the head-mounted device known as the Oculus Rift. Exactly what Mark Zuckerberg and Co. hope to achieve from the acquisition is still up for question, but when the world’s most powerful social network backs a horse in the VR race, it’s worth standing up and taking notice. 

They say that virtual reality holds the power to turn doubters into believers only when those doubters are offered the chance to strap on a VR headset for themselves. I was one such critic. Although after dabbling with HTC Vive and the Oculus Rift, I began to understand the sheer potential it hand. Virtual reality isn’t some passing fad that will fall into obscurity — it’s the future of interactive entertainment. 

But it doesn’t end there. Two years ago, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg outlined that tantalising potential as so: 

“This is just the start. After games, we're going to make Oculus a platform for many other experiences. Imagine enjoying a court side seat at a game, studying in a classroom of students and teachers all over the world or consulting with a doctor face-to-face -- just by putting on goggles in your home.

“This is really a new communication platform. By feeling truly present, you can share unbounded spaces and experiences with the people in your life. Imagine sharing not just moments with your friends online, but entire experiences and adventures.”
(Source: Facebook)

Even if you haven’t dabbled with a VR headset yourself, the mere prospect of fully immersing yourself in a 3D simulated reality, one where you can admire your artificial surroundings in 360 degrees, can be overwhelming — if a little daunting. 

Motion sickness and vertigo are very real concerns, and if you’re a total newcomer to the medium, we’d heartily recommend you try out Samsung’s Gear headset or the cut-price Google Cardboard first before testing your mettle (and stomach!) with the likes of PSVR or Oculus Rift. Prices on Amazon for the Cardboard start at about a fiver, providing a sound point of entry. Plus, you’ll even be able to experience those 360º videos littering your Facebook news feed as they were intended. 

As the technology takes its formative steps on the market, though, it’ll be commonly associated with gaming — short, intense thrill rides designed to whisk you away into an artificial plane in the blink of an eye. But imagine those virtual reality experiences in five, or even ten years’ time; perhaps you’ll be able to swing by a relative’s birthday party from the comfort of your own home or, better yet, visit an entirely new location or some uncharted territory far from the beaten track. Why stop there? SpaceX continues to be bullish in its plans to establish a presence on Mars. Could it be possible that, via the power of virtual reality, we could one day ‘visit’ those sun-scorched Martian plains? Fulfilling all of our astronaut fantasies in one fell swoop? 

With virtual reality, the possibilities are endless. And things are just getting started.



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