In 1983, at the age of eight, I fell in love with virtual reality.
I was smitten. That I could be taken from the drab grey world of 1980s Coventry and plunged into a futuristic landscape of light cycles and space battles was exhilarating. By the time I was 20, I imagined, I’d be living my whole life like this.
Well 20 came and went and 30 too, but VR remained a virtual unreality compared with the fully realised pleasures of games consoles and girls, music and the internet.
It never entirely disappeared from my field of view, with films such as Strange Days and Existenz and books such as Snow Crash and Neuromancer all promising a VR-led future but it had now become just that: a promise rather than a reality.
Finally, though, that’s about to change.
Earlier this month, Samsung announced the GEAR VR – a device that works with the Galaxy Note 4; sometime around the end of 2014, the Oculus Rift VR headset will be released; Sony’s Project Morpheus PlayStation accessory is expected in 2015; Microsoft is rumoured to be planning something; startups such as Fove are bringing their own models to market.
In short, after 30 years of not very much happening to virtual reality, the world’s about to go VR crazy. And the really good news is that this time it’s about more than just gaming.
Space flights, rugby and ice walls
Yeah, we know – you wouldn’t guess that from the names above: Oculus was developed as a gaming device with John Carmack of Doom/iD Software heavily involved in its invention and Project Morpheus is clearly PlayStation-centric. If Microsoft does make one, it’s certain to be Xbox-friendly.
But just because a device can play games that doesn’t mean it’s all it can do. Just take Oculus, which is already racking up non-gaming applications. We’ve seen the University of Surrey use it for a virtual space flight, O2 plunge you into an England rugby union training session and HBO let you experience what it would be like to ascend the 700ft ice wall in Game Of Thrones.
And that really is just the start. Once it takes off, we’d expect it to be used for educational purposes in schools and museums, for information in galleries and shopping centres, for training everyone from doctors to mechanics, for entertainment in virtual concerts and sporting contests.
The future has come to the rescue
The reason why VR will be so all-pervasive in 2015 is threefold. First, the graphics and processing power have come on a long way in the past few years; let’s face it, Oculus wouldn’t be much use for training doctors if the graphics looked like those in Surgeon Simulator.
Second, the current tech landscape means there’s a ready-made market for it. When Nintendo’s Virtual Boy launched in 1995, it was still very much a niche (and expensive) gaming device; it flopped. In 2014, nearly two billion people worldwide use smartphones every day and are far more comfortable with technology.
But the most important factor is that we now live in a connected world. Many people already use Skype and Apple’s FaceTime to speak to friends, colleagues and relatives elsewhere; Oculus and its ilk will give them a completely new way to do it.
The difference will be huge – akin to that between a telegram and a phone call, maybe. Imagine not just seeing your parents on a screen but virtually walking around their house with them as they show off their new bathroom and dad’s vegetable patch. Or imagine meetings where five people on different continents all sit in a virtual boardroom to look at the same projections.
Before the internet, these kind of things just wouldn’t have been possible. Even 10 years ago, the lack of bandwidth and speed issues of the pre-broadband age would’ve made it tiresome. Now, it’ll be a breeze.
All of which should explain why Facebook’s US$2 billion purchase of Oculus in March shouldn’t have shocked anyone – put together, they’re a formidable team. Facebook already has 1.3 billion monthly users, and Oculus could offer them a new way to communicate and new shared experiences to enjoy.
And if Sony and the others have any sense, they’ll be thinking along the same lines. Because as my eight-year-old self could tell you, once you’ve experienced virtual reality you won’t want to be without it again.