Having been interested in virtual reality for as long as I can remember, I've had my fingers crossed that 2016 will turn out to be 'year of VR' as the media have predicted. With the launch of the latest Oculus Rift headset, Google Cardboard's increasing success and the recent release of HTC Vive it certainly seems we are on the right track. However with Mark Zuckerberg recently saying that VR is still ten years away from being mainstream, it's worth discussing if this is actually the case.
Even though it's been making the headlines pretty much every day in the past couple of years, VR is far from breaking news. The idea of virtual reality was already a hot topic as early as the 60s. In 1962, Morton Heilig created the 'Sensorama', an interactive theatre experience with a viewing screen, speakers and devices emitting smells that can be seen as one of the first forays into VR. Through Sensorama viewers could watch stereoscopic images on an oscillating chair to give the illusion of depth and the ability to view something from different angles.
The early nineties saw the concept of VR explode in mainstream media, with several blockbuster movies including Virtuosity, Strange days, Arcade and The Lawnmower Man all released in the first half of the decade. Prototypes like Nintendo's 1995 Virtual Boy were already trying (and failing) to bring VR to the public. But why is VR still not widely available twenty years on?
The reasons are a cross between money and expertise. Just like the first iPhone seemed ridiculously expensive to many people, consumer VR is still in its earliest generations. Nate Mitchell, co-founder and vice president of product at Oculus, recently told Business Insider: "There's a lot of custom components, a lot of custom systems, a lot of innovation happening. And when you put that together into a first generation products, it's an expensive product."
Let's face it: even most gamers won't own a virtual reality headset until after 'the year of VR'. Spending hundreds of pounds on a VR headset is still risky at this early stage, with most big games studios waiting to see the response before entering into the market. Yet, the business world is already paving the way towards a more mainstream VR, enabling early adopters and influencers - as well as consumers attending global events or using global brands - to try this new, exciting technology.
McDonald's recently announced it's turning a limited run of Happy Meal boxes into a Google Cardboard type VR headset. Virgin Atlantic airlines have already been using VR either as in-flight entertainment or to give consumers a 'try before you buy' opportunity and encourage them to fly to new destinations. Sports Illustrated magazine placed its readers on a Dominican Republic beach to watch model Irina Shayk pose right in front of their eyes.
Ideally, in the future VR will allow us to have experiences that would normally be too dangerous, too exclusive, or too expensive for us. But VR will only become mainstream once it helps us interact with real world friends, family, colleagues and clients in the virtual world.
The property market is already investigating how VR can give potential buyers the opportunity to tour properties no matter where they are in the world. Fashion VR will give you the chance to try designer clothes on wherever you are before purchasing them online. You will be able to see Beyonce live from your couch whether you're in New York or in Chipping Norton.
Aside from the consumer uses of VR, there are infinite opportunities for this technology to benefit society outside brand activations. All it takes is a quick google to find that the media industry is eyeing VR headsets to establish their potential for news reporting in dangerous areas like war zones. Even the healthcare sector has been using software simulations for medical training helping surgeons practice ahead of a crucial operation.
One thing is certain: if 2016 isn't 'year of VR' yet, 2017 might be. Tech journalist Mike Fletcher, who recently spoke at a panel on the future of VR held at Flux LDN, recently revealed his virtual reality predictions after attending the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) 2016 in Las Vegas. Fletcher wrote: "When Rift, along with competitor hardware including the HTC Vive and PlayStation VR get into the hands of consumers later this year, the floodgates for 360-degree content experiences will open."
Gamers, movie-goers, entertainment enthusiasts or, quite simply, experience-hungry millennials are crying for mainstream, cheaper virtual reality. But as new VR kid on the block Vive continues to intrigue users, we have to ask ourselves who will end up being credited with bringing this incredible technology to the masses.