Entertainment Video Games

The year of virtual reality

By Syd Bolton

People test Samsung Gear VR glasses at their stand during the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain Feb. 23, 2016. REUTERS/Albert Gea

People test Samsung Gear VR glasses at their stand during the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain Feb. 23, 2016. REUTERS/Albert Gea

The promise of virtual reality has been enormous, and for the most part a disappointment. Being able to put on googles, not move anywhere but be transported virtually anywhere is something that many people have dreamed of for years and years.

Yet technology, that is at the core of its very existence, has consistently let us down.

Even video game juggernaut Nintendo couldn’t save us with the Virtual Boy, released in 1995. It was one of Nintendo’s few failures and, effectively, put the final nail in the virtual-reality coffin in the mid '90s.

When young hacker Palmer Luckey got interested in virtual reality, he did so in a big way and eventually ended up with the largest private collection of virtual-reality headsets in the world. He studied all of them extensively to determine what was good (and what was bad) with each and eventually ended up building his own device that he called the Oculus Rift. After a successful Kickstarter campaign to get it rolling, Luckey got “lucky” and his company was acquired by Facebook for around US$2 billion. While some might question what the social media giant is doing in the VR space, it’s just proof that this time things will be different.

Coming out this April, Oculus Rift is shaping up to be the premium virtual-reality solution but at the other end of the spectrum is something called Google Cardboard an initiative that came out of the Google Cultural Institute in Paris. Using parts that cost as low as $5, Google Cardboard allows users to leverage the power of their smartphones to experience virtual reality. You can also buy pre-made kits for around $20, still keeping the cost very low. Google hopes to encourage more people to develop apps for VR. So far, more than 1,000 apps are available.

I recently had the pleasure of experiencing a solution somewhere in the middle. Using several of its phones as the base, Samsung has released a product called Samsung Gear VR, which is actually powered by Oculus. At $99, it’s a very affordable entry into the virtual-reality space and uses the Oculus store of curated applications. There are all kinds of experiences from games to television to demonstrations and this is only the beginning. My experiences so far have been nothing short of amazing and the thing with virtual reality is that you have to experience it to believe it.

The landscape will be littered with VR solutions this year. With Oculus Rift, Samsung Gear VR, HTC Vive, PlayStation VR and LG’s new VR solution, there is going to be something for everyone from $5 to well over $1,000. It’s going to be a difficult time to sort out which solution is best  or even if virtual reality is for you. Once we get all this sorted out, Microsoft will be waiting in the wings with its Hololens, which will lead a new wave of augmented reality devices. This will be a whole different topic for another day.

Whether you are ready for it or not, this will definitely be the year of virtual reality. The year that we decide if this is the future, and how that future plays out. Will virtual reality be partitioned into a corner with hardcore gamers looking for new experiences or will it eventually just become something that the army uses to train on? Will doctors practice difficult surgeries using this technology or will we finally be able offer a higher quality of life to people with mobility issues? Will this technology, combined with just a little more future technology create the Star Trek holodeck that science fiction fans have dreamt about for decades?

Only time will tell for sure, but it’s looking more and more likely that our world is about to change in a big way.

Syd Bolton is the curator of the Personal Computer Museum and the manager of Information Technology at ACIC/Methapharm. You can reach him via e-mail at sbolton@bfree.on.ca or on Twitter @sydbolton.