We’ve waited all through 2015 for high-resolution, consumer-grade virtual reality headsets to hit the market. While a few models were being sold last year, it seems that 2016 will truly be the year that these products hit the mainstream in earnest. We’ll see the gaming industry change drastically as it incorporates this groundbreaking tech, and a top-10 games list in 2026 might well contain genres and titles that would mystify even the most hardcore gamer of today. This year’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES) is taking place in Las Vegas right now, so we can preview what the near-future has in store for VR enthusiasts.
CES has grown by leaps and bounds since its inauguration in 1967 when 17,500 attendees turned up. Last year’s event saw around 170,000 people checking out what the more than 3,000 participating companies had to offer. As the premier forum for the introduction of exciting, new technology and electronics products, CES 2016 is the perfect place to go to find out all about the latest developments in the VR field.
Facebook’s Oculus Rift was largely responsible for inaugurating the current wave of VR, but the company didn’t really demonstrate anything new at CES this year. Nevertheless, the Rift is now available for pre-order, and shipments are expected to begin in March. Many are leery of the Rift’s $599 pricing as well as the fact that it requires a fairly high-end computer to properly use. Further dampening consumer interest is the fact that the Oculus Touch controllers, which can read and interpret hand motions, won’t be available for at least several more months.
Facebook will see stiff competition from the HTC Vive, which was demoed at CES. This product was originally slated to be available late in 2015, but this was pushed back to April 2016 in order to add what was described as a “big technological breakthrough.” We’ve now seen what this breakthrough is: a camera mounted on the headset that allows the user to interface with the real world while immersed in an imaginary setting. This camera permits the Vive to alert the user whenever he or she is at risk of bumping into an actual, physical object. By using a combination of buttons on the controller, the wearer can seamlessly switch between viewing virtual and real content: very useful for communicating with friends or repositioning oneself in the real world without stumbling around.
Google, which introduced a cardboard frame attached to a smartphone as a VR “system” in 2014, is actually seeing considerable interest in its Google Cardboard standard. Because it uses cheap materials combined with equipment that people already possess, it a wonderfully simple paradigm that others can easily expand upon. Phone case maker Speck has announced the Pocket VR, coming to us sometime this spring and costing $69.95 while competitor Freefly VR is offering a similar system that ships with a wireless controller for prices less than $100.
Besides games, there are a lot of other applications for VR. NASA was at CES, demonstrating virtual models of spacecraft to show people what it feels like to be traversing outer space. These applications could become vital in astronaut training and in the remote control of rovers and other vehicles on the moon or other planets. DirecTV has created an app called BKB VR for Android and iOS devices that allows playback, from any angle, of highlights from past boxing matches. 21st Century Fox unveiled a special 20-minute, VR version of the film The Martian at CES and revealed that it’s investing in VR manufacturer Osterhout Design Group. Meanwhile, the sub-$1,000 VUZE eight-camera system, announced at CES, will allow buyers to create virtual content themselves.
Virtual reality has come a long way since the ’90s, when solutions like the Nintendo Virtual Boy and the uncomfortable arcade pods created by Virtuality failed to achieve success. These failures and others were magnified in the public mind by the widespread hype that accompanied the endeavors. While there’s considerable hype around today’s VR systems, things promise to be different this time around. Technology has matured a lot in the past 20 years, and the headache-inducing displays and ponderous weight of past attempts are no longer serious stumbling blocks.
The landscape of virtual reality today is composed of many companies trying out their own ideas, but they all have the same core attributes: a truly immersive experience, crisp display resolutions, lightweight hardware, and intuitive control schemes. However the market shakes out in the next few years, it’s almost certain that VR is here to stay – for real this time. Future years will see these advancements expand outward from serious gamers to uses in movies and TV, education, business and almost every other sector of society.