The year’s early buzz concerns virtual reality, and particularly the Oculus Rift device, which was a hit at the recent Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.
We’ve learned that the cost of the device – a headset unit whose operations and development are now managed by Facebook – will be $600. Despite squawks over the tariff, which had been widely anticipated to be lower, the Oculus Rift offers evidence that a large market for virtual reality will emerge in 2016.
Gaming, an economic fact of life whose clout has always pushed display technology forward, is an obvious illustration of what can be done with immersive environments. A game called Eve: Valkyrie, for example, ramps up realistic flight simulation into a space dogfight with other players who can join you online – I mention it because it’s included with the Oculus Rift. But beyond gaming, we’ll see applications across the board that affect how we communicate and go about our jobs, which is why VR startups are beginning to pop out like spring flowers.
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But keep in mind that this emergence toward a new platform is in its infancy. We’re so early in the process that we should step back and let the early adopters filter out what’s going to survive and what isn’t. HTC, doubtless still smarting from its recent fumbles with smartphones, will be bringing out the HTC Vive Pre, another virtual reality headset, although with a front-facing camera that allows views of the actual world even as users explore the virtual one. This last melds with so-called “augmented reality,” which is not intended to be fully immersive.
Samsung, meanwhile, offers Samsung Gear VR, an inexpensive framework for a Galaxy S6 or Note 5 smartphone which taps into a wraparound, immersive world whose advantages should become apparent as more environments become available for it. I may deplore the violence inherent in those games that center on shooting things, but I’ll take the option of a virtual tour through a city I’m planning to visit, giving me the chance to see some of the ‘sights’ as I set my future itinerary. A “swim” through the deepest parts of the ocean would likewise lure me.
In a similar way, we will one day routinely use VR to experience places that are simply inaccessible to us, from the inside of dangerous power plants (think Fukushima) to deserts on other worlds. NASA, always in need of public support to back the cost of space missions, would do well to accelerate its virtual reality work, which already includes applications for exploring places like Mars. Can you imagine a VR experience available to the public using live data from, say, a probe on the surface of Saturn’s moon Titan? Other educational experiences could include taking VR-equipped classrooms to historical sites like the Parthenon or Timbuktu.
Some of this sounds like science fiction, but not even science fiction predicted the onset of desktop computers, and today’s smartphones put Star Trek’s “tricorder” into context. We’re getting pretty good at creating futures that surprise us, and that’s part of VR’s problem. For all the talk about what’s possible, we have to come up with breakthrough applications that a lot of us can’t yet imagine. What becomes the first serious driver for VR is probably still waiting to be thought of. We’ll spend 2016 poking around at possibilities as this market grows.
The New York Times distributed 1.2 million Google Cardboard viewers to its readers last year, a cheap way for them to experience 360-degree video content, which is also becoming available on YouTube and Facebook. Now a new report from Digi-Capital sees a $30 billion market in virtual reality by 2020. I expect gaming and entertainment to lead this market, but won’t be surprised to see the coming year littered with miscues as we probe the boundaries between VR and augmented reality to see just where the best early applications are going to land.
Paul A. Gilster is the author of several books on technology. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.