Virtual Reality - This time it's for real

Virtual reality is all over the news at the moment. Facebook, Sony, Samsung, Microsoft, HTC and Valve all have VR hardware approaching release in the next year or so. But many of us are still very hesistant to buy into the hype, believing this to be another passing fad. And who could blame us - we've been here before. During the 1990s we were told the same thing, that this new technology was going to transform the way we interacted with computers, that the future had arrived. It, of course, had not. The virtual reality we witnessed back then was laughable, and not just in hindsight, but somehow still managed to capture the public's imagination and it is probably this more than anything that has tainted VR in our minds. Admit it - when you hear "VR", the first thing you think of is The Lawnmover Man. The media's portrayal transformed "shonky" into "cheesy" - just check out the BBC's short-lived Cyber Zone gameshow (interestingly though, not that different a format from the far more succesful Robot Wars five years later).

I've been lucky enough to have experienced virtual reality back then, and again today though, and I'm here to tell you that the technology, and things already being done with it, now is light-years ahead of two decades ago. This time, virtual reality is the real deal and is here to stay. Let me explain why.

The technology just wasn’t ready then

When I was about 11 or 12, my mother took me a long to a "Innovation Roadshow" organised by BT (or British Telecom as it was still marketed then). It consisted of a marquee in Princes St Gardens, playing host to all sorts of cool, new technologies for the public to marvel at. Though ironically, I actually forget what almost of these things were now. The one that has stayed with me though was the Virtual Reality setup. We had to queue for some time, but I did eventually get a shot and... well, it was a let-down. The graphics were dire, even for then. The headset was painfully heavy. The experience was laggy - when I turned my head, the monitor did move to update this - a second or two later.

Looking back, I'm confused people even tried to implement virtual reality then, because the technology wasn’t there. Computer graphics weren't good enough, especially not for the real-time rendering required for this. We didn't have flat-screen displays, so the headset literally consisted of a really small CRT monitor. No wonder it was heavy. And of course, the processing power wasn’t up to scratch.

Today though, all the pieces are really there. We have flat-screen displays, working with resolutions ten-fold what we were using in 1993. Even cabling and circuit boards are far lighter than they were then. It is no longer a cumbersome experience. Gyro sensors are far more accurate, and the processing power is there to react to them in milliseconds. And graphics of course, you only need to look at some of the flag-ship titles on the Xbox One and PS4 to understand how terrifyingly realistic CG graphics are now.

And it's not just about virtual environments. Some of the most satisfying VR experiences I've enjoyed have been 360° videos of real-life scenes. Recording something like that wouldn't have been possible in the 90s - digital cameras where only just appearing on the market and certainly weren't small or affordable enough to rack together for 360 panoramas.

They tried to do too much

If you look back at some of videos earlier in the article, you'll see with VR in the 90s they didn't just settle for tracking head movements, but had things for tracking hand and leg motions, even treadmills for running on. Again, these efforts either just didn't work or came across as comical.

Going back to my ill-fated experience in the BT tent, there was glove-like device you wore for tracking hand and finger movements. The idea was that would be able to grab items within the virtual environment and interact with them. I was attempting to pick up and throw a paper airplane, which I eventually managed after several, unsatisfying minutes of the technical assistant saying "you're not doing it right, you've got to be really light with your touch". I'd thought I was being light with my touch, I'd thought the whole point was you'd be able to just interact as you would in the real world. The frustration of the interaction, again coupled with the discomfort of this cabled monstrority weighing down my hand, detracted from the whole experience.

Today, we haven't found a solution for this but rather have kept things simple. It's largely just head movements that get tracked the majority of the time and frankly, this alone is enough for an immersive experience. We already all know how to move our heads and look up and down - it's easy, we do it all the time. There are plenty of VR experiences that involve further interaction, such as looking down to walk or using a game controller, but I've found as soon as you have to explain to someone how to do these things, you're over-complicating the experience and losing some of the illusion.

VR hardware manufacturers are looking at better ways for the user to interact with their hands as well though - for example the release version of the Oculus Rift will feature two light-weight handheld controllers that are also tracked in 3D space. Whether these will work in practice remains to be seen though, and for me this aspect presents the biggest hurdle that must be overcome if VR is to truly take off.

This time it’s accessible

This is the coolest part in my mind. Not only does virtual reality offer a rich, immersive experience, but it is one that is now in reach of us all. The chances are, you already have 90% of the necessary hardware sitting in your pocket, in the form of your smartphone. Thin, high resolution screen? Check. Sensitive gyros for detecting movement? Check. Impressive computing power? Check. All that's missing is a pair of lenses to produce the immersive effect and a headset to hold everything together and this is what Google realised last year when they released the "Google Cardboard". Literally made of cardboard, that you fold and stick together yourself to make a headset - all that remains is to slide in your phone and download the app from Google to enjoy a surprisingly high-quality experience. I honestly can't recommend trying this out for yourself enough - the headsets can be purchased online for around £3, or you can pay more for more substantial headsets made of plastic and with padding, headstraps and so on. After that though, you just need to go to iTunes or Google Play and get downloading. On Android, the official YouTube and StreetView apps even have built in support for Google Cardboard, tapping in an existing wealth of content. There is also an abundance of third-party, mostly free, games and experiences to try out.

Which of course is the other cool part - not only is VR more accessible for consumers, it is more accessible for developers as well. The same tools and techniques used for making computer games can be easily used to produce VR games, simulators, roller-coasters and so on. A thriving community of BR developers is arising, putting out more and more interesting content online (another big technology were missing in the early 90s of course - the internet). Not all of it’s good, but some of it is great. Really great.

So, hopefully I've managed to convince you that VR will be different this time. But if I haven't, that's okay as well - whenever Realise have been out and about demo-ing VR stuff to people, the part I love is watching someone with low expectations, tentatively trying on the headset (surprised/skeptical by how light and small it is) and then watching their mouth drop as their mind is blown.

This is it people, the future we were promised is here. Virtual reality. This time it's real.