With all the hype surrounding virtual reality, you’d think a true VR phenomenon is imminent. Yet most of us have still not experienced VR firsthand. When it finally does arrive in earnest, it could disrupt the status quo of many businesses and industries.
“VR has already found favor in enabling surgeons to do operations from a distance,” said Brian May, the legendary Queen guitarist and songwriter who has designed the Owl VR, a plastic viewer for smartphones. “And it will be possible to preserve and relive favorite moments with loved ones, or trips to exotic locations, that can never be repeated in the real world.”
To understand the disruptive potential of VR, it’s important to know how VR works, the public reaction so far, the hurdles to widespread use and its potential impact. Here’s a quick primer:
How Does VR Work?
Because our brains don’t require perfection, we believe that what we see through VR headsets is real. This false reality is created either through external or internal computing.
Oculus Rift exemplifies external computing, rendering graphics and sound on a PC that’s connected to a video player via an HDMI cord. Google Cardboard exemplifies internal computing, rendering VR images on a smartphone inserted into a cardboard head mount.
Myles McGovern, founder of Immersive Media, which distributes and markets 3-D video productions, embraced VR early in its modern development by developing the technology behind Google Street View. Regardless of the computing technology used, he said it’s important to understand that the concept underlying VR is far from high-tech.
“This stuff is circa 1910,” he said, recalling the first stereoscopes, which put negatives into a viewfinder.
These stereoscopes worked by splitting the image into two so your eyes would see it as if it were in 3-D. The idea was later commercialized as the View-Master, which is still sold today. McGovern explained that Cardboard uses the same concept, leveraging technology in recent-generation smartphones to make digital images appear more real.
What Does The Public Think?
VR has yet to achieve mainstream appeal. But when it does, it’ll be thanks to the entertainment and gaming industries leading the way, McGovern said. As the technology progresses, other types of consumers will want in on the action, he said.
“We filmed many 360-degree videos for Samsung, which we hosted and delivered at a recent tech conference,” McGovern said. “We had huge lineups, with everyone from gamers to grandmas and little kids.”
The uninitiated are missing out on a lot, he said. And the VR industry is leveraging mainstream television to make that known. Recently, Immersive produced a VR stream for ABC television and “Good Morning America” in which a VR-ready camera system was placed in an African jungle. Headset-equipped viewers were treated to the surreal experience of being surrounded by wild elephants.
What’s The Holdup?
Public enthusiasm for VR may be held in check by the cost of equipment. Gamers may be willing to pay for high-performance VR, but the general public may be less inclined. Prices are coming down, however, and some products are already within reach. Headsets like the Gear VR and Oculus Rift currently sell for $99 and $599, respectively, although the Oculus headset requires a $1,000-plus desktop computer to drive it.
“As the tech progresses, it will come to a point where it’s so cost effective that it will reach mass acceptance,” McGovern said.
If VR is like other industries, cost will come down with increased competition. The market is also attracting new entrants, such as Owl VR, whose simple design is meant to compete with Cardboard.
What distinguishes Owl from similar products, according to May, is increased access to the phone’s controls. Owl also reduces the feeling of vertigo, which can be a problem when viewing VR, he said.
Why Should Businesses Care?
May is bullish about the potential of virtual reality to disrupt businesses from architecture to healthcare, as well as change the entertainment industry. He can even foresee people wanting to watch classic 3-D movies in a VR system, enabling a full experience with a minimum amount of gear.
In regards to the potential of VR in sports, music and performance art, “the surface has only been scratched,” May said.