Virtual reality: So near, yet so far

The biggest competition for virtual reality is something it’ll never beat – the real world.

As many readers of this blog like to point out, a virtual reality environment will never be a substitute for actually experiencing something.

No-one, even in the corridors of Oculus Connect, a conference for the virtual reality industry, would suggest otherwise.

Owned by Facebook, Oculus is credited with breathing new life into the virtual reality industry which had faded out after an almost cringe-worthy first-go in the nineties. Its headset, the Oculus Rift, hits shelves next year. Anticipation is huge.

But today we had a reminder of just how far we are from enjoying anything that comes even close to producing an fully-immersive world – one that can recreate common human feelings and emotions; the sense of being somewhere else, with other people, feeling different sensations.


The announcements

Oculus and Facebook made a range of announcements relating to VR today. Here are the most significant:

  • Minecraft. Veteran games maker John Carmack, now chief technology officer at Oculus, described Minecraft coming to Oculus as the biggest “win” they’ve had. It didn’t come easy – Mark Zuckerberg and Microsoft boss Satya Nadella had to sit down and iron out some issues before the deal was done.
  • Netflix, Hulu and others signed up. The on-demand giants are on board with VR – you’ll be able to watch titles on the likes of Netflix and Hulu within the headset, giving the impression of watching it on a huge screen. Many have questioned how comfortable that would be after more than about 15 minutes.
  • A $99 (£65) Gear VR. Aside from the premium Oculus Rift headset, due to be released early next year, Oculus and Samsung have created the Gear VR, a low-cost headset that uses a Samsung smartphone to power the visuals. It’s not the full VR experience, but it’s intended to be gateway for newcomers. The next headset will be $99 and work with Samsung’s Galaxy S6 range.
  • Oculus Ready. The Oculus Ready PC programme is a stamp of approval designed to help people buy computers that will be good enough to power VR. PC makers onboard include Asus, Dell and Alienware.

To hammer this home, Oculus’ chief scientist Michael Abrash took a refreshing approach to his keynote – outlining all the things Oculus could not yet do.

The problems are so great the team is not even trying to solve them – something for the next generation to tackle.

One is providing a sense of smell, a sensation so integral to experiencing, and later remembering, a new place.

Brendan Iribe, Oculus CEO

Another challenge is the ability to taste something, or hear realistically in a way that does not feel as if we’re just wearing headphones. Perhaps the biggest barrier is a sense of touch.

Haptic technology is only just beginning to recreate basic touch sensations – but it remains that in VR, it’s going to be years before you’ll stop putting your hand through virtual tables, killing the illusion in an instant.

Tough crowd

But virtual reality enthusiasts shouldn’t feel disheartened.

Right now, VR is what Space Invaders is to Call of Duty. They’re both games, sure, but they’re worlds apart. The now-primitive blip-blip-blip of 1970s arcade games were the building blocks needed to get us to where we are now.

And so the feeling among Oculus Connect is that this is just the beginning, and there’s still a long way to go.

A screen from Space Invaders, from a display at London's Science Museum

Gamers and the wider public may take a while to reach the same level of excitement felt within the industry.

Mr Abrash told delegates that they’re living in the “good old days” of VR – a time that will be looked back upon as the start of something significant.

Except it’s not quite the start. We’ve been here before. Journalists in the 1990s were writing about VR as the next big thing just as I am now. But the technology wasn’t ready then.

Is it now? There are a few veterans prowling the halls here, enticed back to the action after some time away. One was Greg Panos, who has been studying virtual and augmented reality for over two decades.

I asked him if this latest wave of VR was any different to what happened in the 90s.

Yes, he said – the difference now is that VR is good enough, and cheap enough, for companies to start making some serious money. And so it starts.

Palmer Luckey, founder at Oculus

The first battleground for VR will be gaming. Therefore the best games will win – in theory – so efforts from HTC Vive headset could disrupt Facebook’s ambition. HTC has partnered with legendary games maker Valve, and so the games should be terrific. And the Vive goes on sale first.

Sony is jostling in, too. Its Morpheus headset has two things going for it. One, it’s tied to the already immensely successful PlayStation 4, and so will likely be bundled with the console.

Shrewd move

But with the announcements made today, Facebook is giving itself a huge headstart in a new, exciting world of entertainment.

Deals with Netflix and Minecraft could give Oculus the edge, even if other competitors have better hardware, as has been the suggestion. Content, as always, is king. Vive and Morpheus will need to compete with that.

The possibilities are mind-blowingly enormous – from gaming to tele-presence, education to blockbuster movies, Facebook is trying to nurture a platform that one day could rival the mobile app ecosystem in its scale.

But – and it’s a big but – Facebook still needs to pull it off. One year on from Facebook’s purchase of Oculus VR, we’ve still not seen the technology really hit the market in any meaningful way. That means Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg’s $2bn bet in VR bet is still wide-open.

Will that purchase be seen as a shrewd move on par with Google’s bargain-tactic $1.65bn purchase of YouTube in 2006?

Mark Zuckerberg, CEO at Facebook

Or will Oculus be Mr Zuckerberg’s MySpace – a service with great early momentum, bought by NewsCorp for $580m, only to be later offloaded for $35m? It was a newcomer that took what MySpace started and made it much much better, killing the business in the process.

That newcomer being Facebook, of course, Mr Zuckerberg certainly knows how this game works.

It’s presumably why he appeared, unannounced, at Thursday’s event, seemingly with one key purpose – to manage the expectations of developers, the press and the public.

“All of you are inventing the next major platform,” he told delegates. “This is going to go very slowly.

“Facebook is committed to this for the long term.”

He doesn’t expect “millions” of units to be sold – at least not for a while.

He was there to reassure developers that even if things don’t pick up and make millionaires straight away, he’s committed to sticking with it.

But he’s not the only one – and it could be competitors that take what Oculus has started and does things better – giving Mr Zuckerberg the MySpace treatment.

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