Virtual reality was once the fodder of science fiction, a simulated world that geeks drooled over but the rest of the world found laughably inaccessible. Eager engineers tripped around darkened living rooms with massive VR headsets, looking ridiculously obsessed with a vision no one else could see. But the line between perception and reality is shifting as technology advances and many high profile companies are convinced that virtual reality is the future of the Internet. What are they able to see about VR that we can’t? Let’s take a look.
Even a cursory glimpse into today’s landscape of VR indicates our assumptions are outdated. As technology has advanced in recent years, so has virtual reality. The original aim of VR pioneers was to create an experience that would rival our senses and challenge perceptions about what the digital world could accomplish. Just a decade ago, VR’s ability to produce a fully immersive universe still seemed the stuff of sci-fi fantasy. Several key advances, however, have transformed the VR world and allowed the technology to become more responsive than ever before.
Firstly, the rapid advance of smartphone technology has opened up the market for cheaper components and the dynamic displays that make VR possible. Pioneers in the medical field have developed what we refer to as BCI (Brain Computer Interface), allowing amputees and handicapped patients to utilize mechanized and digital components with an astonishing level of integration. This is the same technology that will help create the truly convincing interactions virtual reality has been unable to produce thus far. Increasing bandwidth and the expanding availability of high-speed Internet has made accessing VR interfaces and streaming the enormous amounts of data necessary to create a digital world more feasible for the average user.
The most conclusive sign that virtual reality is the future of the Internet is the current level of investment and interest from high profile innovators. When Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg plunked down 2 billion to acquire a virtual reality company Oculus in 2014, there was some consternation. In the years since, Zuckerberg has consistently argued that virtual reality is the format that social media will utilize to take the Internet to the next level. He points out that we began utilizing the Internet as a primarily text based interface, then moved to an increasingly visual presentation. That has morphed into an approach that has become heavily reliant on video. In each evolution, technology has followed the demand with increased bandwidth and higher resolution displays. The natural progression indicates the Internet will strive to produce more compelling interactions and virtual reality will be ready to meet that demand. Zuckerberg has put his money where his mouth is, partnering with Samsung to produce advanced headsets and employing over 400 people to work on apps and interfaces that will take virtual reality to the next level.
“We’re making a long-term bet that immersive virtual and augmented reality will become a part of people’s daily lives.”
Mark Zuckerberg, Press Release 2014
Over 230 companies who have also invested in VR technology agree that Zuckerberg is headed in the right direction. Most notably, Google has funded the mysterious Magic Leap, a virtual reality startup in Florida, that has been garnering plenty of buzz in recent months. Google also released Google Cardboard, an insert that allows users to turn their smartphones into cheap, VR headsets. This has addressed a long standing issue with expensive technology that has priced the average user out of a virtual reality experience for decades.
How close are we to making virtual reality a part of our everyday interactions? It’s hard to say for sure, but there are still some major challenges that will need to be surmounted on the way to making VR commonplace. The following are just a few of the most notable concerns that are preventing virtual reality from taking a more prominent place in social media and the marketplace.
- 5G/ Powerful Networks: While our access to broadband and fiber has increased dramatically, we’re still not there yet in terms of what would be necessary to support the speeds that streaming VR requires. We’ll need more powerful, more prominent connections to ensure a seamless integration of virtual reality interfaces into our existing platforms.
- Affordable Technology: As previous mentioned, the exorbitant cost of VR headsets, (typically $1000 and up), has priced the average user out of the market. But hopefully, companies like Google will continue to drive innovation in this sector and enable VR to become affordable for every household.
- Big Data: More immersive VR experiences require detailed data about the user. Along with collecting massive amounts of personal information comes the usual privacy and security concerns. We’ll need to better assess how virtual reality stores data and come up with solutions to protect users from being exploited.
- More Development: Simply put, the technology just isn’t there yet. Big, clunky headsets close us off from feeling fully involved in an experience and prevent connection with each other in a digital world. We’ll need to develop lightweight technology without tethers that doesn’t obstruct our view of the limitless possibilities of the virtual reality landscape.
Is virtual reality the future of the Internet? Many technology companies and major innovators are banking on it. And in the same way that the Internet has transformed our world in the last two decades, VR pioneers are convinced virtual reality will bring the same fundamental shift to our daily lives.
“Ours is a journey of inner space. We are building the internet of presence and experience.”
Rony Abovitz, founder of Magic Leap, Wired Interview, 2016
Virtual reality is no longer the exclusive domain of science fiction. It’s a future that’s just around the corner as long as we can embrace a fantastic idea that lurks just beyond the edges of our vision.