Virtual Reality: Still Goofy After All These Years - InformationWeek

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3/6/2015
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Thomas Claburn
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Virtual Reality: Still Goofy After All These Years

The 2015 Game Developers Conference reminded us how hard it is to look cool while playing with VR. Yet, business interest in VR has surged recently as companies try to figure out how to reach beyond hardcore gamers.
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(Image: Thomas Claburn)

(Image: Thomas Claburn)

Reality is free, yet it can often leave you feeling shortchanged. Virtual Reality (VR) is expensive, and may leave you feeling exhilarated, if it hasn't made you motion-sick.

Facebook paid $2 billion last year for Oculus, maker of the Oculus Rift VR headset, because it sees a future in which virtual reality becomes an accepted form of mass entertainment. To judge by the exhibition floor at the 2015 Game Developers Conference (GDC) in San Francisco this week, many companies share that vision. (Full disclosure: GDC is produced by InformationWeek's parent company, UBM Americas.)

It's a vision that goes beyond games, as Oculus CTO John Carmack suggested in his keynote address at GDC on Wednesday. As an example, he cited the fact that his grandmother views panoramic pictures she's taken with her mobile phone through a Gear VR headset.

Businesses are already experimenting with VR. Carmaker Audi plans to make the Audi Virtual Reality Experience available to a limited number of dealerships later this year. The VR car marketing program has been in pilot testing in Brazil for more than a year.

In January, Oculus announced the formation of Story Studio, an in-house group focused on the production of virtual reality movies.

To understand the commercial appeal of VR, consider what it lacks: Distractions. When you're participating in virtual reality, you're all in. You're as engaged as you can be, and engagement matters to artists and advertisers alike. An audience that doesn't pay attention doesn't pay off.

This may explain, in part, why interest in VR among technology companies has surged recently. It's also about how smartphones can work with VR headsets to make VR more affordable. And it's about incremental improvements in a variety of motion and graphics technologies that make VR systems more practical to implement.

[ VR was a hit at Mobile World Congress 2015. Read VR, Smartwatches, Wearables: 8 Cool Gadgets From MWCl. ]

Here's a quick recap of recent VR news:

  • Sony's VR headset, Project Morpheus, which debuted at last year's GDC 2014, is now slated to ship in 2016.
  • Microsoft HoloLens goggles were unveiled in January.
  • Samsung and Oculus have announced a new version of Samsung's Gear VR goggles designed to accommodate its new Galaxy S6 smartphone.
  • Razer is developing the OSVR headset. Google offers Cardboard, cardboard goggles that rely on a smartphone display to present stereoscopic images.
  • HTC and Valve are working on a VR headset called Vive.
  • A handful of other companies, including Fove, GameFace Labs, Magic Leap, Sulon Technologie, Vrvana, and Zeiss are developing similar technology.

VR has been a long time coming. Back in the 1990s, VRML -- virtual reality modelling language -- was all the rage. The focus then was on making 3D graphics interactive and browser-friendly. Everquest, Second Life, World of Warcraft, and various other virtual worlds showed that 3D graphics could be captivating and sometimes profitable. Now, Second Life founder Philip Rosedale is back with High Fidelity, flush with venture funding, to make a 3D ecosystem fitted to VR headsets.

We can speculate whether or not there's a VR bubble that's about to pop. But what fun is that? What we do know is that the technology will evolve and become more commonplace as companies figure out how to reach beyond hardcore gamers. Eventually, Magic Leap or some company like it will figure out how to make VR work without having to strap a bulky device to your face. Until then, enjoy the fantastical fakery before your eyes, and try not to think about the way you really look.

Thomas Claburn has been writing about business and technology since 1996, for publications such as New Architect, PC Computing, InformationWeek, Salon, Wired, and Ziff Davis Smart Business. Before that, he worked in film and television, having earned a not particularly useful ... View Full Bio

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Technocrati
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Technocrati,
User Rank: Ninja
3/9/2015 | 9:53:27 AM
Re: VR needs more work
@Pedro    Not only is it a niche market. You really only need one of them, if you decided you needed one at all. Retail VR is going to be a difficult sale, just ask Google with their glass effort.

Even though Google Glass is different, the niche aspect and cost elements are similiar to VR IMO.

Maybe the only company in the World that could come close to pulling this off would be Apple, and have you heard about them wasting time and money on this ?
Technocrati
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Technocrati,
User Rank: Ninja
3/9/2015 | 9:48:22 AM
Re: VR needs more work
@PedroGonzales   I have to keep an eye out for that Shark Tank episode.  I must have missed it.   Did anyone invest ?
Technocrati
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Technocrati,
User Rank: Ninja
3/9/2015 | 9:46:18 AM
Re: for the masses
@soozyg    Great idea !   I honestly struggle with the usefulness or potential usefulness of VR.   While not that much of a gamer, it is really difficult for me to see practical uses for this technology as long as the devices are so bulkly.  

So using it for healing would be a wonderful application, if VR is not used for something really constructive - it just seems like a waste of time to me.
danielcawrey
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danielcawrey,
User Rank: Ninja
3/8/2015 | 12:56:31 PM
Re: VR needs more work
I really like the idea of VR, even back to those days of VRML. It's too bad that technology was never completely realized, although I think that's based on it being to far ahead of its time.

Plus, it was browser-based, whcih was a great idea but architecture-wise I don't think the web was quite ready for that just yet. 
Thomas Claburn
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Thomas Claburn,
User Rank: Author
3/7/2015 | 4:17:16 PM
Re: Magic Leap
Magic Leap's technology shouldn't be very bulky. As far as I can tell, it involves a laser projecting images eyes of someone wearing the company's glasses.
mak63
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mak63,
User Rank: Ninja
3/7/2015 | 1:38:43 PM
Magic Leap
" Eventually, Magic Leap or some company like it will figure out how to make VR work without having to strap a bulky device to your face."

Am I correct to assume that the only chance of that is with holodecks a la Star Trek?
soozyg
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soozyg,
User Rank: Ninja
3/7/2015 | 9:05:49 AM
for the masses
how to reach beyond hardcore gamers

If they could make VR for healing purposes through visualization THAT would be cool.
soozyg
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soozyg,
User Rank: Ninja
3/7/2015 | 8:58:14 AM
oh, the nausea
When you're participating in virtual reality, you're all in. You're as engaged as you can be, and engagement matters to artists and advertisers alike. 

That's probably the part that would make me nauseated. In all things, I need an out.
PedroGonzales
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PedroGonzales,
User Rank: Ninja
3/6/2015 | 5:00:18 PM
VR needs more work
In an episode of shark tank, the omni creator was pitching this idea to the sharks.  Altough it was pretty cool.  They all mentioned that the omni belong in a very niche market.  It would be very hard to expanded to mass consumers.  Also, one of them tried to play with it, it is very difficult to use and you look pretty funny while you are on it. 
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