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Virtual reality is one of those technologies that a lot of people have wanted but no one exactly knew how to develop it in a way that could be commercially successful and avoid the criticism that former attempts at the technology had brought about.
One such failed foray into virtual reality occurred in 1995 with Nintendo's Virtual Boy. While not explicitly virtual reality, the product did place a significant focus on the user wearing a headset that achieved a 3D effect via parallax that creates the illusion of depth. The display itself was achieved through a set of two red LED screens.
The problem with the Virtual Boy, in part, was that wearing the headset was not a pleasant experience. No user could wear it for too long as either the headset itself caused physical discomfort or the screen would contribute to eye strain. In the end, the Virtual Boy was critically panned and proved a commercial failure. It also put a significant dent in the virtual reality market - at least in the commercial sense.
A new age of virtual reality
When the Oculus Rift emerged in around 2012 and was supported via Kickstarter, it brought about a new age in virtual reality. Now, in 2016, the first commercial version of the full Oculus Rift will be shipping in March. Since its inception, however, several other companies have gotten involved in the VR game. These include, but are not limited to, Sony (with PlayStation VR), HTC and Valve with Vive, Google with Google Cardboard, and Samsung with their latest Gear VR being developed in conjunction with Oculus VR.
If you step outside of VR and look at augmented reality, you also have companies such as Microsoft and, again, Google working on their own AR products: the HoloLens and a revised version of Google Glass, respectively.
These days, with much better tech than we had back in 1995 and past failures to learn from, VR is a far more feasible and achieveable technology. At the same time, each of the bigger players seem to be targeting different audiences. The recent price point for the Oculus Rift ($599 US) has placed it as a premium VR solution, and its requirements of a decent PC gaming rig certainly supporting this.
HTC's Vive virtual reality headseat. Image source: "HTC Vive (12)" by Maurizio Pesce - https://www.flickr.com/photos/pestoverde/17136185595. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
From what we know, Vive will probably have a premium pricing as well, with the hope that because their VR headset can blend real-world objects with VR for a type of 'hybrid reality' experience, it will be a unique selling point. Google Cardboard is the more affordable VR solution, as is Samsung's Gear VR - though it does require you to own one of the more recent Samsung smart phones. With Sony's PlayStation VR, it will naturally work in conjunction with the PlayStation 4. Pricing and release information for PlayStation VR is still unknown, but it wouldn't be surprising it proves to be an expensive peripheral.
Many of the VR products have a dominant focus on gaming. This is especially true with Oculus, PlayStation VR and Vive (for the unitiated, Valve - one of the company's helping develop Vive - is video game developer and is behind the famously popular online PC game store Steam).
Immersion and new realities
The key objective of virtual reality is to transport you to new worlds. That sense of being in an entirely different environment even though you could just be sitting in your lounge room is key to the experience. VR isn't supposed to be something you take part in in public. With your headset on, the sights and sounds are meant to feel closer, authentic and remove you - mentally - from the world around you.
While the current form of Oculus Rift does a good job of this, the intention is to one day include other technologies that can make the experience even more real. For example, peripherals that could mimic certain conditions (e.g. could make you feel colder if you're virtual exploring a snow-covered vista or create vibrations in your hands/arms if you're firing a gun in a VR video game, the latter of which can be achieved via haptics). These developments could still be years off, but they're part of the defined intentions for Oculus Rift going forward.
I can certainly see the appeal in pushing for greater immersion in the coming years. While this isn't an explicit example of VR, last year while visiting Vancouver my brother and sister-in-law took me along to Flyover Canada. The ride utilised a domed screen that covers your entire field of view, motion seating, and additional immersive tricks such as replicating wind and water (to mimic the sense of soaring through the air and bursting through waterfalls).
For me, as someone who is afraid of heights, the moment the ride started I felt my fight or flight mechanism kick in and, for the first minute or so, my mind was convinced I was perched high above the ground and that I could come tumbling down at any moment. While it may not sound like a fun time, once my mind adjsuted to the realisation that it was all a virtual experience, I came to appreciate just how immersive it was. Even when something is virtual, it can still capture one's own sense of reality and make them believe that the virtual is very real.
While VR may not hit this level of believability in 2016, this is certainly the year where VR is making its mark towards a very interesting and undeniably exciting future.