The arcades of the '70s and '80s were a place of absolute wonder: banks of magical machines crammed with challenging, eye-catching and colourful games catapulted the computer games industry from niche to mainstream, where it has been ever since. Capturing that excitement and creating a personal experience that can immerse and entertain an individual - in their own space - has been the holy grail for the computer entertainment industry ever since.
Step forward through time, and we see the move away from the arcade and into the home. The rise of the 8-bit home computers like the ZX Spectrum, along with early consoles like the NES and Atari 2600, enabled individuals and families to bring the arcade experience into their own space. This is a trend that has continued through console and computer platforms, helped by falling costs, improved performance and the advancement of peripherals: from light guns to VR headsets.
Thanks in no small part to those considerable advancements in processing technology, we've seen immersive VR systems improve in quality, ease-of-use and portability.
From business to consumer
Like many computing advancements, VR owes much of its development and progress to business and military early adoption. The use of VR headsets to help visualise and manipulate 3D designs, explore spaces before they are built and provide augmented context to production lines and factory floors has seen VR come of age in business applications. Meanwhile, virtual heads-up displays in fighter aircraft have helped to advance VR for military applications.
In both cases, these innovations have shaped the future consumer use of VR for gaming and graphics, showing that realistic VR rendering of environments can be done fast and accurately enough to impress and entertain.
Blazing a trail with platforms for VR
The one thing that has held back VR from further mainstream adoption has been a lack of good, centralised content. However, even that is changing at speed. The emergence of dedicated platforms for VR and immersive content is changing the landscape for VR users. Akin to how Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Spotify and Deezer have transformed film, TV and music consumption, these new services will make it effortless for VR headset owners to put their device to work. Placing everything from games to video in one place makes it easier to find, navigate, pay and play.
At the higher end, dedicated headsets that connect to PCs or consoles are falling in cost. The price of an Oculus Rift unit is currently £400, with competition set to bring that down even more. These headsets can focus on being the sensory interface, while the machine it is attached to does the heavy lifting, allowing more advanced, realistic and immersive games and content to be developed and used. All that is missing is a single repository.
It is big business too. Last year, some 2.2 billion gamers across the globe spent $108.9 billion on games content alone. That figure is up nearly eight per cent on the previous year. What's more, 87 per cent of those revenues were on digital game content rather than games on physical media. Streaming and online delivery is clearly following that of video and audio.
Taking VR from gaming to entertainment
VR is about more than just computer games. The next step is to use VR headsets to transport a user into the heart of the action, be that the crowd at a football match or in prime position at a big festival or gig.
Think of 3D films, then think of actual, true 3D - a film, television or event environment you can explore at your own pace, looking at the action from different angles and paying attention to whatever you choose to. It has the potential to change content consumption forever. It also offers non-gaming content creators an avenue for their next stage of evolution. We've already moved from standard definition to high definition, then to ultra-high definition. The next logical step is sensory, rather than even more extreme detail.
Combining this with a strong social element within the environment is important. It helps replicate the sense of being able to talk to the people either side of you as you would at an event. Overcoming this 'isolation' element, previously associated with VR of the past, makes this possible. The use of mobile companion apps and easy-to-use in-platform community and peer engagement features make interaction simple and also part of the VR experience.
VR in the business and academic world
Aside from games and "like you are there" entertainment experiences, VR still has a lot to achieve in the enterprise space. Increasingly being looked at for healthcare applications, the improving clarity, visual detail and accuracy of VR systems is opening up the potential for telehealth applications like remote surgery and diagnosis. Not to mention its use in the lab for the study of diseases, DNA and cures. In compassionate care, helping patients with Alzheimer's, dementia and other cognitive conditions to cope and experience environments they find familiar and comforting is growing, with several advanced pilot projects in Europe making use of VR alongside other technologies.
There is little doubt that VR has come of age from a hardware and capability standpoint. All that is missing is the content; except that is already there as well, it's just fragmented and scattered around the web. Bringing everything a VR user needs into one place makes VR a utility service: easy to use, always accessible and with no shortage of material to feed the demands of the user.
Peter Bergstrom is CSO of Terra Virtua
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