Recently Allison Sheridan sent me a link to an episode of Computer Chronicles about Virtual Reality from 1992. Stewart Cheifet does an excellent job summarizing the tech and breaking it down for viewers.
Allison noted that even in 1992 he was saying VR wasn’t just for games and talking about medical and educational uses and pretty much everything that we talk about today.
She said, “I love watching this but I’m also saddened that it’s so familiar to today.”
I see what she means. After all, other things have changed considerably. I really enjoyed the public service announcement to not pirate software, “Don’t copy that floppy.” Ha!
First, I would say that the persistent enthusiasm for using VR in education, medical, and many other fields beyond gaming just reinforces the fact that demand exists now that we’re starting to have supporting technologies in place that weren’t available 24 years ago.
There’s a great quote referenced from Scott Foster at Crystal River Technologies in the video. “The visual systems we’re working with today aren’t that good. It’s very difficult to build a very precise stereo imaging system.” That problem is solved! We’ve also now got inexpensive and powerful game engines with asset stores, smartphones, high resolution 360 video capture, photogrammetry model capture, high-speed internet connectivity, online payments, high resolution displays, miniature and cheap sensors like gyroscopes and accelerometers, updateable content through Content Management Systems, mobile and online payment platforms, microtransactions, and easy distribution through app stores. Each one of these puzzle pieces are critical to a tech like VR having mass adoption. Think about how the CyberGlove has changed from a bulky wired glove that tracks one hand to a Kinect that can track 6 people simultaneously from up to 20 feet away; entire bodies – including fingers and heart rate based on skin tone changes!
Also, many of the ideas weren’t that good in 1992. The ones that were good either were adopted and slowly improved by their respective segment (architectural, defense, auto manufacturing, etc). Even if the tech had existed, the standard internet paradigm also hadn’t evolved enough to know what products might work. One of the ideas I saw in the video was virtual shopping malls. I remember that was a focus in the dot com runup as well. While we were trying to figure out how ecommerce might work, people wanted to hold onto the old-world paradigm. When I was at Hot Topic in 2006, I had vendors pitching virtual shopping malls. While we did consider building a store in Second Life just as a test (why not sell a picture of a T-shirt instead of an actual T-shirt?), it always struck me as a silly shopping experience adding real-world constraints to an experience that can be so seamless online.
I’d like to use Aerosmith’s 1994 video for the song Amazing as an example. In 1994, it was just a fun “what-if” video that’s all filmed or pre-rendered graphics with some nice VR hardware (including the CyberGlove featured in Stewart’s video). I remember being 19 and watching that video thinking it would hit while I was in college and I could go Sky Surfing with Alicia Silverstone. Sadly, none of the above mentioned technologies were there to support my Alicia Silverstone Sky Surfing fantasies. I’d like to imagine if that video came out now (and the record company was willing to spend the money, which is a different topic).
A team of two or three people could use Unity 3D to build an environment with realistic physics. We could pick up models for items like motorcycles, guitars, and airplanes from the Unity Asset Store or Turbosquid. We could use photogrammetry to capture a photorealistic model of Alicia. We could use cut scenes captured with a GoPro 360 camera rig or even the Ricoh Theta S for $300. Then, we could easily export builds from the game engine to Android, Linux, iOS, Windows, and Mac and distribute those in app stores and on the web. We could even make a little bit of money for the band by including additional experiences as in-app-purchases. Then there’s the marketing element. Now, we could promote this VR product to the band’s database, the Ticketmaster list, and potential sponsors. So, we could market to millions of Aerosmith fans and use analytics platforms to fine-tune the message and segment to increase conversion, etc. We are able to reach millions of people to promote this product now with zero marginal cost. I know we’re all familiar with the marketing elements but I mention it as these innovations also drive adoption and monetization, which will be a big part of VR reaching mass appeal.
The only part in my mind that’s lagging behind is addressable market but with big publications like the New York Times and Wall Street Journal distributing millions of Google Cardboards and large festivals like Coachella giving away branded headsets to attendees, I believe that is only a matter of time. The point I’m trying to make here is that each one of the components needed to bring a fun silly product in an Aerosmith video in 1994 to an actualized product in 2016 just came into existence in the past few years.
I am a little bit contrary to the prevailing mindset in that I believe the consumer side will really be based on experiential products (tourism, porn, music, film, 360 video) in addition to gaming but not driven by gaming entirely. Not to mention, medical, eduction, and more specific cases.