Time to look at VR again ?

When something new hits the scene, I’m often reminded of the Gartner hype cycle chart:

You can look at everything from the initial web 1.0 dreams that today are actually happening because we went from 100mm online users to a couple of billion. Or look at the medical fields and where we were with artificial limbs 30 years ago, and today’s amazing offerings.

So in that context, I think VR (virtual reality) might be hitting that “Slope of Enlightenment”.

In the early and mid 90s it was all about VR for gaming, military simulations, and I even remember seeing a demo for a shopping experience. There was a big bush for a 3D HTML called VRML that I worked on a bit for some clients, and Netscape bought a company called Paper Software that had a VRML browser plug-in. People were talking about how the Star Trek holodeck was around the corner. But quickly VR and the overall idea faded from the conversation.

Fast forward 20 years and quietly some cool stuff has been happening. A kickstarter project, Oculus Rift, looked to raise $250K for a developer VR kit, and received over $2mm when John Carmack gave it his unofficial blessing. CHeck out this video below:

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Then this evening I was reading over on Tom’s Hardware this hands-over review:

“Holy $#!+,” I blurted after the Oculus Rift VR goggles were slapped on my face. It had nothing to do with the device’s physical aspect – the Oculus Rift was surprisingly light on my head despite its bulky appearance. I just didn’t expect to see what my eyes were sending to my brain, and everyone in the dark room laughed at my sudden outburst.

I would have said more, but I found myself a little speechless thereafter, lost wandering the streets of the Epic Citadel demo. I knew the experience would be awesomely cool, but I didn’t expect to still be talking about it a week later to everyone I know.

If you were there when id Software and 3Dfx changed PC gaming, then you might know what’s coming for you. At the time, John Carmack and his gang turned the grainy, pixilated polygon-based world of 1996’s Quake into a super-smooth environment with believable lighting effects. Heck, I can’t even remember Quake without GPU support now, but I remember cursing the moment I saw what the difference dedicated hardware support made.

This will likely be the very reaction every PC gamer will have when they use the Oculus Rift. In the private demo held by the Oculus team, I was seated in a chair and given a gamepad. The goggles were placed on my head and I was asked to look up, look down, look left, look right, and then look over my shoulder for calibration. That’s right: you can see whatever is behind you without having to turn your virtual body.

So looks like it’s perhaps time to start paying attention to this field again 🙂

4 thoughts on “Time to look at VR again ?

  1. Scott Berkun says:

    I had no idea you worked on/with VRML. I was on IE at the time and remember being pitched on it as the future, along with HotSauce (do you remember this? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/HotSauce) and tons of other TWFD (things with flashy demos) that never earned much attention. There were a lot of “3D is the next generation” things back then.

    The best advice I ever heard about evaluating things like this is just to ask the person pitching it for one single example where the new thing is better than the old thing, validated by users of the old thing. Few pitches do this – many inventors fail to think this way, of targeting their idea to prove its value in the small. I remember the VRML folks didn’t – they had their demos and never found anyone interested in partnering with them. Never had a testimonal of someone with a problem they wanted solved that VRML or whatever solved for them. People who think of themselves as big thinkers often suck at recognizing nothing changes everything all at once. It’s one specific person, company, or group solving a problem that convinces other people to even give it a try – that’s more convincing than any demo can ever be.

    Gaming, as the review you quote mentioned, is the natural first home for VR. The Wii and Kinect all validate consumers are willing to try new UI models under the guise of entertainment. But the challenge there is new devices have to come with games that make the new thing pay off + the new devices have to fit the $200/$400 price point of home entertainment devices. When you see Oculus or whoever partnering with a game design company (or vice versa), then you’ll know something with momentum might be afoot, as the game designers and their bosses see a match of opportunity and profit.

    Subjectively, VR always makes me consider the uncanny valley. A more virtual experience might not necessarily be more enjoyable or more fun. It might be, but there might also be something about how cognitive perception works that makes looking at a 60″ Hi-def TV with 5.1 surround sound the optimal environment for many kinds of games/experiences.

    • Oh ya, HotSauce was hot 🙂

      All really good points.

      Gaming is interesting, because those of us who played games 25-30 years ago on 13″ TVs or at the arcades, remember the games being super fun and pretty immersive. So it’s really about the experience & the entertainment value — not the tech. And the Wii proved that recently as well.

      But there is something about VR, about being 100% in the game, about the idea that you don’t need a game controller to control your movements or at least your POV — that makes it super compelling and I think will eventually catch on. That plus the fact that John Carmack is getting excited about something means we should pay attention.

  2. Compelling video and commentary. We may well be at that take-off point and it could go well beyond gaming to living life in a mixed “real-virtual” world.

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