Regular followers of the world of technology will have noticed that virtual reality (VR) is all over the place at the moment, including on our hallowed web pages and those of sister site The INQUIRER.
And for good reason. The HTC Vive went live for pre-orders just a few days ago and was snapped up by 15,000 early adopters despite the eye-watering price of £689.
I tried out the HTC Vive Pre at MWC 2016. This is an almost identical pre-consumer version of the headset created through a partnership between HTC and games firm Valve. Put simply, it's outstanding.
The immersion, interactivity and ability to make a virtual world feel physically real was breath-taking, even when I was acutely aware of having a less than ergonomic headset strapped to my head in front of a batch of onlookers.
VR has come a long way since the days of unwieldy headsets more likely to immerse users in migraine than other worlds, Nintendo’s Virtual Boy from the mid-90s being one such culprit.
The HTC Vive is stealing headlines, but the Oculus Rift is slated for an April release. This will bring the Facebook-owned VR headset to consumers and businesses alike, although not to Apple Mac users.
Then there’s Samsung’s Gear VR and Google’s Cardboard headsets, which offer an affordable way to get into VR if you have a compatible Samsung Galaxy smartphone, or are willing to drain the battery of your iPhone.
And, like others, notably V3 deputy editor Dan Worth, I’m pretty excited about the technology's potential.
Gaming could become a far more immersive experience than just sitting on a sofa in front of a big TV or hunching over a monitor.
Virtual tours of exotic lands and locations could become truly interactive, rather than an on-the-rails experience. Industrial companies could use VR to train engineers to work in challenging conditions without running the risk of putting rookies in danger.
The potential for VR is vast, but sadly I don’t think it will be realised anytime soon. It is a great thing to try once in a while as an experience, but day-to-day diving into digital worlds is not something I see growing beyond niche appeal quite yet.
There are two hurdles to the future of VR, at least in the short term: the hardware and the software.
As it stands, the HTC Vive ships with three games, with several other big gaming titles featuring VR compatibility. But it arguably lacks a ‘killer app’ to really make gamers abandon their comfortable seats, gaming PCs and perfectly calibrated monitors to strap a headset on and find some free space in which to move about.
No doubt more developers will add VR compatibly into their games as it gathers traction in the consumer space. But I don't think we will see a deluge of VR-only games anytime soon, given that game development is increasingly expensive and it requires quite a gamble to move away from existing and lucrative gaming platforms.
VR has piqued the curiosity of many enterprises, but has yet to be truly put to major use.
The technology can certainly help in simulating training scenarios and help engineers design machines in an interactive virtual environment, but the cost and complexity of such setups mean that they lack the scale and ecosystem to encourage widespread adoption.
And although VR hardware is far more advanced that it ever has been, it is a long way from being an elegant way to transition from the physical to the digital world.
So how do we jump these hurdles? My answer involves gazing deeper into the future with a healthy dose of science fiction.
VR will escape its niche proposition in terms of hardware when it evolves from chunky wearables to embedded technology.
I’m talking about VR-enabled contact lenses and implanted motion tracking chips that can allow people to transition seamlessly into virtual worlds, whether at home or in a park, as well as inject some augmented reality into the mix.
Perhaps technology could go one step further and have chips implanted behind the eyes so that people can swap real-world vision with that of a virtual environments with a simple thought.
If that level of trans-humanism is making you a little queasy, how about creating an equivalent of Star Trek’s Holodeck? This could be a room kitted out with holographic cameras, haptic surfaces and more sensors than a GCHQ listening post to create virtual environments in which people can walk around without needing to use headsets or motion controllers.
Hardware aside, I’m more positive about how VR software will evolve. Many organisations are creating VR apps focused on delivering additional experiences for people buying products or using services.
But for VR to evolve beyond a tool for marketing and fleeting customer experiences, I believe that more funding needs to be allocated to developers and startups interested in creating truly innovative software for VR, but that lack the support to take such a development risk.
A proper VR ecosystem, especially one that goes across the VR platforms on offer, could create new businesses, app stores and exciting and practical new use cases.
VR is undoubtedly one of the most interesting things to come out of the technology industry in recent years, and its impact will be felt in 2016, even if it remains a niche proposition.
But I really hope that major tech companies and innovative startups continue to push the technology further and harder, as I believe we are only on the cusp of what VR can truly do.
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