Virtual reality, which has long promised to allow users to immerse themselves in virtual worlds, is at last ready for the big time.
After years of development, rival VR headsets will be hitting the shops in the coming months. Then it will become clear whether VR is ready for everyday life.
The term virtual reality has been around since the 80s and repeated attempts have been made to try to achieve its potential. However, the idea was ahead of its time. The early devices were not powerful enough, were costly and felt clunky when worn.
The upcoming headsets such as the Oculus VR from Facebook or the Playstation VR from Sony are still to be worn on the head, but are much lighter than their predecessors.
But size and computing power were just two of the hurdles the technology faced. Until recently, many people complained that visiting virtual worlds was nauseating.
The high cost of a mass-market headset may also be dizzying. But now it’s believed that many gamers, having waited for years for the technology to develop, are ready to put down real money to get into VR.
What the first VR customers can expect is still unclear. Sony demonstrated the impressive capabilities of the technology last (northern) autumn, when some guests at the premiere of the movie The Walk were able to don headsets and feel what it is like to walk by tightrope between the twin towers of New York’s World Trade Centre.
If one uses the rise of the mobile phone market as a comparison, today’s VR is still at the “brick phone” stage, Ted Schilowitz, a researcher into the future with the movie studio 20th Century Fox, told the New York Times recently.
The technology certainly works, but before mass adoption we cannot say where it is headed for. Market researchers at Juniper Research estimated that 3 million VR headsets will be sold this year – with the figure to jump to around 30 million by 2020.
The race to produce suitable content is already under way. Facebook, which paid around $US2 billion ($A2.80 billion) for VR pioneer Oculus, made two short films for VR headsets in its own studio.
“To tell stories in virtual reality is much more complex,” says the studio’s creative director, Saschka Unseld.
At the same time the creative opportunities are greater because the viewer is right in the heart of the action and can react to it. The headset has sensors that can detect movement and adjust the picture accordingly.
Besides computer games, music concerts are also seen as an exciting possibility for VR. In September, Disney, the pay-TV provider Sky and others invested $US65 million in VR start-up Jaunt. The company has demonstrated its technology with a VR recording of a concert by Ex-Beatle Paul McCartney.
The next step is cameras that can record 360-degree videos of the real world. Google and the action-cam specialist GoPro are selling such a filming and processing system for $US15,000.
In contrast Nokia and the US start-up Lytro want to serve the professional market with VR. The Finnish company charges $US60,000 for its Ozo camera whereas Lytro’s system including camera, server and software will cost several hundred thousand dollars.
However, the technology will be affordable for consumers within three years, Lytro chief Jason Rosenthal told the US magazine Fast Company.