Virtual reality remains in the realm of science fiction, as even the best technology for exploring virtual worlds at home requires goggles, gloves, and headsets. Personally, until I can experience Disneyland’s Star Tours at home, I’ll be disappointed in the technology available to consumers.
If the past is any indication, efforts to market virtual reality and its sibling augmented reality to consumers will have limited success, probably in the gaming market.
Nintendo’s Virtual Boy remains one of the company’s greatest, and most costly, failures. The bright red goggle and controller combination premiered to great fanfare at the 1995 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) and was discontinued by 1996. There were other attempts to develop virtual reality games over the next decade, each proving people didn’t want to wear goggles to play mediocre games.
Nintendo keeps trying to make games immersive, from the Wii console to the Pokémon Go app for smartphones. The Wii came close to a virtual reality experience, especially with motion controlled sports games. The Nintendo Wii, for all its initial success, faded into irrelevance as Sony’s PlayStation and Microsoft’s Xbox provided better games to loyal consumers. The Wii games were fun, but not the detailed multiplayer action games that came to dominate the market.
Pokémon Go exemplifies augmented reality. A fantasy world is superimposed on the physical world, creating a hybrid experience. You locate Pokémon characters in real places, from street corners to public libraries. A friend of mine located Pokémon in a hospital room, sitting on a bed.
Pokémon Go wasn’t developed by Nintendo, but the company smartly licensed technology created by Niantic. The Niantic team had previously collaborated with Google to overlay video game fantasy maps on real-world map data. According to Nintendo, in 2014 the company’s Pokémon team considered ways to use Google Maps within a promotional game.
Unfortunately for Nintendo, the Pokémon craze rose and fell like the pet rock fad. The game still has fans, but the numbers fell quickly and Nintendo might struggle to recapture that initial spike in smartphone app sales. Technology companies cannot survive on short-lived fads, even one as big as Pokémon Go or the Wii.
Tech companies haven’t learned from past failures, as the 2017 CES featured yet more goggles and gimmicks instead of a virtual reality or augmented reality that might appeal to more than a niche set of gamers.
Personally, I’m impressed by a relatively cheap alternative introduced in 2016. The View-Master VR. As a child, I loved View-Master discs. For the last 75 years, the three-dimensional photography and art of View-Master has been magical. View-Master VR combines with a smartphone to provide a 3D video experience. For $25 (plus the smartphone), the old View-Master becomes a 360-degree, full-motion immersive toy for exploring places real and imagined. Though limited to viewing with minimal interaction, the View-Master offers an interesting glimpse into the possibilities of 3D.
At the 2017 CES, however, the emphasis was on more elaborate VR and AR solutions.
The most affordable of these VR technologies are smartphone adapters that work with handheld game controllers. For a more interactive experience, you can try a Samsung Gear, Google Daydream, or one of the many VR adapters for iPhones sold for around $100. Of these solutions, the Samsung Gear offers the best experience and most content. Samsung worked with Oculus to create a true HD viewing experience, including support for some 3D movies via streaming services. The challenge right now is waiting for a new Samsung smartphone, since the Gear VR worked best with the Galaxy 7 line of phones. The in-store demonstration I received of the Gear VR was impressive, though it was limited to viewing short clips of animation and sequences from games.
Smartphones provide sufficient power for basic VR and AR, but they have limited memory, processing power, and screen sizes. For a View-Master experience, the adapter approach is acceptable, but more detailed and realistic experiences require more computing power. In fact, serious VR requires a good, mid-range computer. The better your computer, the better the virtual and augmented reality experience might be.
Oculus and HTC offer headsets and controllers designed for use with a personal computer with a powerful processor and graphics card. The Oculus Rift and HTC Vive both feature two stunning HD screens, one for each eye. The screens are organic LED (OLED), allowing for high dynamic range (HDR) video better than most televisions. Because 3D works by providing two slightly different images, these headsets require a computer capable of driving three computer screens: the main screen and two eye panels.
Both companies recommend performance video cards from Nvidia, which can cost $500 or more. Though they claim Intel Core i5 CPUs provide sufficient computing power, reviewers have found that an Intel Core i7 is required for smooth VR experiences. Realistically, a computer capable of good VR and AR will cost $2,000. Spending more results in better VR.
The Oculus Rift with a controller and the HTC Vive complete kit both retail for $800. That seems like a lot of money. However, serious gamers often spend twice that amount for graphics cards.
Both headsets can use applications such as Virtual Desktop VR, which makes Windows 10 like something out of Minority Report or an outlandish network series. The screen “floats” in front of you and responds to controller motions. But, I cannot imagine wearing a headset while reading email, surfing the web, or browsing spreadsheets. For now, VR is a gaming and entertainment gimmick.
For less money and an easier setup, I would recommend using a gaming console to explore virtual reality. Consoles are specialized computers and the current generations of PlayStation and Xbox hardware provide sufficient computing power for good VR experiences. Sony offers the PlayStation VR headset for use with PlayStation 4 consoles. Remember, though, that unlike a custom-built computer, you cannot upgrade the graphics hardware of consoles. The PlayStation VR costs $400, half the price of Oculus or HTC products, and has been receiving rave reviews.
Companies aren’t going to stop investing in VR and AR. With so many headsets entering the market in 2017, virtual reality has at least arrived for serious gamers.