Virtual and augmented reality will do more than just boggle the imagination; they will finally set it free. The technology being demonstrated and sold today has the power to make what's unreal seem real, and to make what's real seem unreal. Imagination will become the medium.
It has been easy to dismiss VR and AR as fads or experiments, to relegate them to the heap of digital toys, to call them an evolution beyond 3D, or just another gaming peripheral hell-bent on removing us further from reality and human contact. History may some day reveal that they were all of that, but just as we embark on what is sure to be an avalanche of kickstarted VR and AR ventures, some of which are already available, it is becoming clear that this technology could touch, and perhaps change all of our lives, as it did for cancer patient Roberta Firstenberg, who took spectacular journeys using Oculus Rift during her final days.
Many of us at Tom's Hardware have had the opportunity to try on some of these technologies, and to call those experiences immersive feels limiting. It's immediately easy to see how new games will emerge, along with applications for normal, everyday life, in industries like healthcare, retail, and manufacturing. Don't ignore the profound opportunities in the arts, where writers, musicians, and cinematographers will be able to tell stories that bring vivid details to life, immersing an audience inside fiction and non-fiction. The notion of a book or a movie may soon be a relic.
The technology is upon us. Facebook's $2 billion acquisition of Oculus was one particularly loud signal. Sony, long rumored to be working on a similar effort for the PlayStation, finally unveiled Morpheus at the Game Developer Conference in March. New AR and VR technology appeared like newborn rabbits at the most recent Consumer Electronics Show, coming from stalwarts like Epson to upstarts like Technical Illusions.
Although many AR company executives characterize Google Glass as a heads-up display, it does provide a form of augmented reality, and those same executives are quick to realize that the entire industry has benefited from the spotlight Google has shone.
While it's probably a little early to be looking at market forecasts, we asked Gartner, IDC, and iHS, among others, whether they were tracking or forecasting VR and AR. None had data to share with us. ReportsandReports provides some market forecasting but wanted us to pay upwards of $4000 for the report; for that money we could have purchased five Oculus developer kits, a Vuzix AR kit, a pair of Google Glass, two Epson Moverios, and a Vladimir Putin painting courtesy of George W. Bush, so we declined.
KZero Worldwide, a VR and online gaming consultancy that happens to also track some of this data estimates that 5.7 million VR units will ship in 2015, 10.9 million in 2016, and a cumulative total of 56.8 million between 2014 and 2018. Truth be told, it's just a guessing game at this point.
Before things get too crazy, we decided to ask some of the early leaders in VR and AR to talk about the state of the technology. We interviewed principal players (CEOs, founders, product managers, heads of research and development) at seven companies: Oculus VR (now Facebook), Sony, Technical Illusions, Epson, Vuzix, vrAse, and Sulon Cortex.
We asked each of them about some of the technology and non-technology hurdles and what their companies were doing to overcome those hurdles, how they expected the technology to change the ecosystem of digital electronics, and PC and console components, and the world at large.
Some common themes included: the need for better battery technology; improved, realistic, and higher resolution displays and projection capability; accurate headtracking and other sensor-based processing; latency; smaller, lighter, less intrusive, and, dare we say, less ugly contraptions; and the confidence of developers to create the content. Sounds a little like the mobile industry six or seven short years ago.
Among these, content is crucial. Luckily, game developers are clamoring toward the Unity 3D engine, and many of these new technologies support it.
The seven interview responses are printed in the following pages, along with some key facts about the technology and historical timelines marking milestones in VR and AR development, including, ironically enough, the memorable and imaginative mass media scenes, in two mere dimensions, that likely helped inspire this burgeoning moment.