It’s official: the Internet has become an extension of nearly every facet of life. Our lives have become enriched in so many ways; from navigating new, unfamiliar places to managing finances, things have become easier because of the pervasiveness and access of the global knowledge source that is the World Wide Web.
Until recently, the Internet allowed us to connect to others using effective but limitedly engaging means of communication. The early days of simple text-based exchanges on AOL, ICQ, and MSN messengers paved the way for more immersive video services like iChat and Skype. Our connection choices today remain vast, from inherently open and public-facing services like Facebook, Twitter, Medium, and Instagram, to more personal platforms like SnapChat and Slack. In every case, users are able to communicate in fairly diverse mediums, using combinations of text, images, and video at their leisure. Facebook, the clear frontrunner of these services with over 1.5 billion active users, made headlines in 2014 when it purchased a then-esoteric startup called Oculus. Although it is routine for large companies to purchase small ones as part of accumulating expertise in emerging areas of technology (see Apple’s Siri), if we connect the dots going backward, it makes complete sense for Facebook to acquire Oculus. Virtual Reality (VR) appears to be the next paradigm, in Mark Zuckerberg’s words, for “making the world more open and connected.”
How would a VR world to bring us together? One of the more obvious applications is the ability to bring couples together in times when they are unable to be physically present in the same place. What created the pervasiveness of long-distance relationships in the first place was innovation in communication technologies. Through Internet-connected devices, people are able to interact for long hours, play games, and share experiences instantaneously, allowing them to feel less distant from their loved ones. Consider in the future that instead of simply video chatting with someone on Facebook Messenger, one could just as easily virtually enter the same room as their friend living on another continent.
Debuted in 2012 at the E3 Gaming Convention, The Oculus Rift caught the tech world by storm after raising 2.4 million on Kickstarter. Invented by Palmer Luckey, the device is basically a set of hefty goggles that allows you to be immersed in an entirely new, three-dimensional world. Rift accomplishes this feat using a pair of screens that displays two images side by side, one for each eye. A set of lenses is then placed on top of the panels, focusing and reshaping the picture for each eye, creating a stereoscopic 3D image. The end result is the sensation that you are looking around a completely realistic—but virtual—world.
The more immediate application from many of the early VR headset manufacturers is a focus on live-action gaming. Oculus Rift launched on March 28th with over 30 games as well as some other interesting demonstrations, capitalizing on only a fraction of the potential of this nascent market. Not too long after the development of Oculus Rift did we hear from other large scale manufacturers about their own VR products. The HTC Vive, the Sulon Q, and the Samsung Gear VR are all making their way through the manufacturing pipeline over the next 12 months.
While VR will certainly be a compelling new platform, many question whether it will truly find a mainstream audience. There are still several obstacles to overcome, including – but not limited – to: 1) issues with the field of view for those with near-sightedness; 2) the near server-grade computer requirements; 3) and limited content.
In the darker days of Apple, the Newton MessagePad was launched. It was a smorgasbord of advanced technology: a handheld RISC computer, a bitmap screen, a novel intuitive OS based on gestures and handwriting. At the time it was, under the hood, undoubtably a technological marvel. But it was also a commercial failure, because the technology was not yet at a point where it was actually useful. It took another 14 years before the technology delivered a genuinely useful handheld device. Perhaps VR will require the better part of a decade to flourish, but all signs point to it becoming a successful new way of experiencing the world.