The rise of virtual reality
And how it will make your life better
Think of opening up your eyes one morning, and finding yourself in a hyper-coloured, gaming-like world. Your hands have a slightly different texture than usual, and all around you there are visible stimuli and popups forcefully suggesting you what to do. You are not dreaming, you are waking up in virtual reality (VR). This is what Sarah Jones and Dean Johnson felt a year ago. In 2017, the two spent 48 hours straight in VR, experiencing the most regular of our daily tasks, but also testing the limits of human stamina in virtual reality, getting tattoos and even walking on the wings of an in-flight aeroplane. But we will get there in due time.
People have always dreamed of other worlds. Whether to escape the one we live in or out of sheer will of exploration, as a species we are inexorably drawn to discovering the new and exciting. The release of Ready Player One last week is a clear signal that this desire is powerfully alive in everyone's mind. The film, based on a book by Ernest Cline, follows the story of hero Wade Watts and his epic journey to find an Easter Egg in a virtual reality game, in order to inherit the fortune of the game creator.
There was a time, somewhere in the 1950s, when technology enthusiasts around the globe started creating stories involving simulated worlds. Surely, Morton Heilig’s Sensorama built in 1950 played an important role in convincing people that something like that could exist in the future, but in practical terms the prototype was a machine which would provide something very far from a VR experience you could live today.
After that, and up to the present, technology has evolved exponentially in virtually any field. VR technology has, in the last 70 years, lived moments of brief glory and more often than not, sound setbacks. Four years ago however, something happened that would change the world’s perception of VR once and for all, and would start its unstoppable ascent that is still going on today.
Facebook bought VR company Oculus in 2014, opening a world of possibilities for VR beyond gaming that the world had only dreamed of so far. How has VR changed since then and what does the future hold for this long-dreamed-of and quickly evolving technology? In other words, how is VR going to make our lives better?
I have talked to six VR innovators about their work and their hopes and expectations for the future of VR beyond gaming.
VR is a technology that is rapidly evolving, and so everything related to it is changing, from the hardware to how people consume its products. The price is going down, and the power of the technology is increasing.
"If you think about Oculus for example," says Andrew Hawken, Co-Founder at Mesmerise VR, “two years ago it would require very expensive laptops. Now you can run it on a laptop for under a thousand pounds, and they're about to release headsets which won’t require any computer at all.”
And in fact, VR is evolving rapidly beyond gaming in a multitude of different ways. Gianfranco Chicco, European Marketing Director at The Webby Awards, says how VR entries characterised the last two editions of the Webby Awards: “apart from in video games, VR was very relevant at the Webby Awards in terms of immersive storytelling, aiming at creating an empathic bond with the participant.
“We saw different entries. Some relating to pure narrative - people choosing to use VR to tell their story instead of writing a book or making a film - others related to journalism, marketing and experimental narrative.
“There was a VR experience created by Cinétévé, a French production company, that reproduced an escape room, but the person whose body you inhabited was disabled. And this other one about synaesthesia, in which you were able to 'hear’ colours and ‘see’ sounds.”
But if the last four years have seen VR technologies back right at the forefront with Oculus, the way companies are trying to use VR is still quite experimental. Dean Johnson, Head of Innovation at Brandwidth, compares the rise of VR technology to what happened when the first iPad was released: “it worked because people understood what it did.
“When Google started distributing Cardboard headsets to everyone in 2015, it was a great initiative but it showed we were not there yet, because people weren’t sure of what to do with it.”
And even today, Johnson thinks we are not at a point where VR can be offered as a flawless experience: “I wouldn’t go to the UBER website and look for a car, I would use the UBER App because it just works.
“The idea and the place that we really need to be for VR to fully work is something that is for discoverable content. We need to make sure VR is possible on platforms and devices people are already using, and then we disrupt that by offering someone a completely different experience within that.”
But how can companies invest in VR when it is still such an experimental market? A report released in 2017 by ARtillry Intelligence showed that More than $4 billion in venture funding has been invested in AR & VR companies since 2012, proving that AR and VR technologies are certainly on the rise. However, data from the same report also showed that the consumer VR sector is experiencing a deceleration of new investments and a funding crunch, as investors try to figure out the most successful applications of these technologies.
“I think a lot of companies are quite cautious about investing early when we’re not quite sure what that landscape looks like”, says Bianca Wright, technology journalist and Media lecturer at Coventry University. “Which technology do you invest in? What do you develop for? For headsets that are phone-based, do you develop for a particular platform?”
Wright talks about her own experience in creating Coventry Blitz VR, a fully immersive experience using the Telegraph’s archive of photos and articles to tell the story of the devastating attack on the city.
“Initially, we were going to release it on the Oculus Store, and then having looked at the requirements of that we realised that actually it was better for us, in terms of time and ability to get to market within the time frame we needed, to do it through the Google Play Store.”
In terms of competitors on the VR market, Wright draws a parallelism with Amazon and the voice market: “Amazon has done very well to corner that market with the technology in Alexa and they’ve done that by opening up the back-end of their platform to allow others to help developing Alexa’s skills. As a result of that, Amazon is now driving seventy percent of market share in voice.
“Now we don’t have that same kind of core player in the VR marketplace. There are certain big players, but there’s not one that we all look into and say ‘okay that’s the one, we’ll put our money on that one’.”
But what does virtual reality actually mean for people? In order to show that, we’ve asked our six experts to describe as briefly as possible what VR means in certain fields and industries. Whether you live in VR or never experienced it, here are their words and some videos to go with them.
"People learn best through experience, so when you allow children to go to the moon for a lesson in physics, for example, that's just fantastic."
"If you think about training in healthcare and surgical training, there is so much potential in that area to really develop skills training in ways that we haven't before, and to extend the reach of medical training beyond the sort of elite medical schools."
"Being able to drive around in a car that you haven't physically built saves hundreds of thousands of man-hours in production, and the fact that you can bring the things in a way with the services and technologies that would be integrated with the digital side of things as well, that just works."
We've built this VR experience that is for financial advisors to be in the skin of an elderly guy who has started to have cognitive decline. You look down to your hands and they ache, you can’t quite read the paper that’s in front of you, there’s lot of noise you don’t understand. So it’s really giving those people the insight of what is like to be on the other hand of their advice."
"At Vogue, for example, we're very aware that journalism has become a multimedia industry, it’s not so much about covering a story and writing about it. There’s a whole new set of ways to tell that story and it’s just the lack of having that technology widely available that is preventing it from moving as fast forward as it could."
"As we've seen at the Webby Awards in the last couple of years, many artistic creations in VR already exist. There is one about Dali which is both a homage to the man and an art project in its own right."
Immersion Possible: 48 hours in VR
As part of their commitment to spreading awareness on the VR industry, two of the interviewees who contributed to this piece, Dean Johnson and Sarah Jones, have pushed the boundaries of VR exploration more than most people on Earth. In 2017, the two spent 48 hours straight in VR, eating, sleeping and walking around London with a headset on.
The experiment was aimed at testing the limits of VR-use time and help virtual reality spreading to a wider audience. "We made it look fun," says Johnson, “and obviously there were huge chunks of it that really were, it's just you realise that 48 hours of anything is hard work.”
“Experiences don’t have to be highly crafted or high graphics for them to be fully immersive,” adds Jones. “You can have low graphics and it still helps you get that sense of presence. Films don’t always have to be at the highest quality, it’s how you tell the story and how you bring it together that helps to feel present in an environment.”
Johnson and Jones did not just live a regular life experience when in VR. They wore VR goggles while driving go-karts, getting tattooed and even walking across the wings of an aeroplane in-flight.
“I think in terms of awareness of VR and getting people’s imaginations fired that was a really interesting thing to watch,” says Wright, “to see how people reacted to that. It was like “oh [they are] crazy but it’s amazing’, that was kind of the reaction that many people had.”
In terms of what the most memorable time from that experience was, Johnson says it was the feeling of falling asleep and waking up in VR: “It was a stunning experience, especially the first time around. The content I woke up to was gaming and high intensity so your brain didn’t have time to think slowly about that. I didn’t wake up thinking 'oh I’m still in VR’, it was like ‘sh*t, I’m still on it!’ and for a second I believed everything, it just seemed real.”
And it is exactly about this physicality of VR that the whole experience was built on. “The experience was stunning because you suddenly mixed what you were seeing and hearing with what you were feeling,” says Johnson, “and that physicality is phenomenal because that’s the thing that takes down yet another barrier to you believing or not believing what you’re seeing.”
An isolating experience?
Virtual reality is a game-changer in today's technological world. We have seen it creating beautifully crafted experiences for people to witness other worlds and lives, and there is no doubt its potential for improving people’s lives is great. However, as every game-changing technology, VR can also potentially disrupt human relationships and lead to isolation. How high is the risk for a thing like that to happen?
"We got this horrendous dystopic view of the future where everybody sat just lost in VR," says Johnson, “It’s when you are sharing that experience with other people that things change. VR to me, even now, is a very isolating experience if you’re just doing it by yourself.”
Just as social media did, changing the way we perceive social interaction, VR is another of these technologies, according to Wright. “Because they’re just tools, it’s how we use them that gives them impact, so I think we need to be cautious about embracing technologies in ways that will be detrimental to how we function as a society.
“I think in an era in which we are perhaps more divided than we have been, we need to be careful about how those technologies are used. If we use them in a negative way, absolute isolation and social fragmentation is possible.”
But there is another view on VR and isolation. Crissy Bogusz, graphic designer and motion graphic artist working for Vogue, also mentors young girls throughout the country for the Girl’s Network. She believes that social media and new technologies are responsible for young people to grow up smarter and acquire more information in a way older generations could not.
“I work with girls between 14 and 17,” she says, “they grew up in this digital age and they spend a lot of time engaging online. Something very different I noticed between their and my childhood is that they’re so well spoken, so articulate that I concluded it must be due to the sheer amount of data they receive day to day throughout all these different programs and software applications. They are constantly interacting with so many other people and learning in the digital world.”
Bogusz thinks social media is “expanding the human mind”, and despite risks connected to people losing themselves in the virtual world exist, generally “new technologies, including virtual reality, are making people more aware of themselves and other people and conversations.”
Moreover, there are many reasons to keep us anchored to the real world, even if virtual ones should become particularly appealing to live in, says Jones. “There are bills, and mortgage and life that exists out of the virtual world, so no risk of getting lost in it.
“On the other hand, it does help you to embrace another reality and live it in different ways and understand things in different ways. It allows you to travel to places that otherwise you might not be able to travel to and see things that you might not be able to see, and that’s a really powerful opportunity.
“It’s a very powerful technology that allows you to do that, and it’s certainly not replacing anything at the moment.
“There will always be examples of people who do lose the sense of reality because they are immersed technology,” says Jones, “but in terms of everybody living like that, everyone isolated in one’s virtual world, I don’t think it’s going to happen.”
The Future of VR
So where is virtual reality headed? It is becoming increasingly clear that its impact on the industry is growing, and the technology is slowly entering more and more people's homes. Will this growth suddenly come to a halt, or its development is now unstoppable? And if that is the case, how fast will this technology become universal?
According to Jones, despite VR becoming more accessible, it is still quite far from being available to the masses. However, she highlights that the move of some companies of releasing standalone headsets - as opposed to mobile-powered ones - is going to make a big difference.
This year a number of VR standalone headsets will be released, from the Mirage Solo by Google and Lenovo to the Oculus Go, an entry-level standalone device, and a higher-end headset, code-named "Santa Cruz." The Pico Neo and HTC Vive Focus will also be released later this year, making 2018 the official year for VR 2.0 to thrive.
A report from Canalys from December 2017 confirms this, predicting shipments of standalone VR headsets to exceed 1.5 million this year, a 500% annual increase. That would push the total VR headset market to 7.6 million units in 2018 — more than double of what forecasters were projecting a year ago.
But if VR sales in terms of standalone headsets will probably increase exponentially this year, the same can’t be said for investments in the VR industry. “I think it’s going to be a slow burn,” says Hawken, “I don’t think it’s going to become mainstream in the next year, it’s going to take a while for it to percolate through.
“The technology has to improve, the hardware has to improve, but all of the big technology players are fully in and shipping products and when that happens we’ll certainly reach a tipping point where it becomes the norm.”
And in fact, according to the new 10-year industry forecast from Greenlight Insights and Road to VR, if the VR business will be “very modest” through 2018, and in an “inflexion zone” for the next five years, it will grow exponentially to $38 billion in annual revenues by 2026.
As virtual reality keeps evolving, it embraces many hopes and expectations that tech enthusiasts dreamed of since the early days of this technology. You can not only play games in VR now, but experience real and distinct sensations. You can immerse yourself in someone else’s life and experience it almost as if it was your own. Is this what early fans of VR were promised in the 1950s though?
“I don’t think we’re there yet and I’m not sure we will ever necessarily realise it in the way that has been presented in popular culture throughout the different eras,” says Wright. “But I think we’re closer to a point in which VR becomes more mainstream, and I think a lot of that has to do with increasing accessibility in terms of cost and in terms of ease of use of the devices that are required in order to make VR work.
“When I started as a journalist,” she says, “the notion of VR was really bulky, it wasn’t practical, it wasn’t something that you could see happening in a home. Now I go to schools and I test out VR experiences, and you ask kids 'have you heard of VR experience?’ and although it’s not necessarily a majority, there are certainly at least a handful, possibly even a third of the class that have had some kind of VR experience.”
Wright thinks that VR usage is only going to increase as the technology becomes more sophisticated, but also more accessible to people and more able to meet the demands of what the mainstream wants.
So what if it is not mainstream yet? Bogusz strongly believes in the future of VR and calls it the "the next big development in technology.
“It’s very exciting because it’s so unique, and it’s one of those technologies around that is really inspiring and we haven’t had that for a while. It’s something that makes people say ‘wow, this is completely new’.”
Whether VR will take over our lives completely in the near future, or will remain as something complementary to our everyday life, it is beyond doubt that it is already improving the lives of many of us. From marketing to the arts, from medicine to journalism, it is just a matter of time before this technology becomes another one like social media, which, for better or worse, we can’t help but use to ease the flow of our lives.