Is Virtual Reality Making a Comeback?

If you grew up in the late 80s or early 90s, there’s a good chance you played a Viewmaster, or if you were even luckier, a VirtualBoy. While the Viewmaster was a success for many years, the VirtualBoy was widely considered a flop, despite Nintendo’s upward trend at the time and the overall novelty of stereoscopic virtual reality. Fast forward to 2014 and it seems that Virtual Reality is enjoying a renaissance.

Before getting into the modern incarnations of Virtual Reality devices, it’s important to understand the fundamentals of stereoscopic VR. The same basic idea that powers the rather simple Viewmaster also powers today’s VR headsets. In essence, like other stereoscopic implementations, the idea is project a different image to each eye, as occurs in everyday life.

What ultimately held back early VR devices like the Virtual Boy was the immaturity of display technology needed to make stereoscopic virtual reality a comfortable experience for end users. The Virtual Boy, for example, had a great 3D depth effect but with the prohibitive cost of going with a full color display, it instead feature a red LED based monochrome display system.

Today, display technology has advanced to the point where full HD 1080p displays with sufficiently high refresh rates can be crammed into spaces small enough to fit on head gear. We witnessed the progression in the miniaturization of displays in the smartphone world so it was only natural for VR to take advantage of this innovation.

The other recent advancement that sets apart current VR solutions is the ability of the VR head units to track the user’s head position and tie it into inputs that would traditionally be tied to the use of a controller or keyboard. This not only makes the experience more immersive but makes it all that more intuitive.

The most recent and well known leaders in the Virtual Reality include the likes of former startup Oculus and Sony’s own Project Morpheus, and while the primary motivation for the advancement of VR is for gaming applications, there is certainly a possibility for it to be so much more.

This is where the acquisition of Oculus by Facebook might start making sense. Just a few month ago, the social media juggernaut purchased Oculus for $2 billion. On the surface, the purchase didn’t make much sense and people (especially hardcore gamers) are worried that Oculus will be ruined by Facebook. When considering Facebook’s core business model of advertising and data mining, the concerns are understandable.

But taking a step back, what Facebook bought for $2B isn’t the newest way to deliver pervasive invitations to play Candy Crush Saga. Rather, they are buying their ticket to be one of the first to attack what is an emerging new platform. Not unlike the rise of mobile computing (smartphones and tablets) supplanting traditional PC/Laptop computing, some, including decision makers at Facebook, believe that VR can be the next major platform.

In the short term, devices like the Oculus Rift and Sony’s Project Morpheus will be fueled by the dream of more immersive gaming experiences, but the bigger picture is that VR could eventually become the next major change in the way that people interact with each other.

The next few years will be extremely important for the future of VR. It has already overcame the shortcomings of ancestor like the Nintendo Virtual Boy, but will be treading a fine line to avoid the same fate as highly touted but ill-received “innovations” like 3D televisions.  Facebook and Sony will be important players in nurturing the viability and acceptance of VR to the masses.

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