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Virtual Reality Explodes Onto Consumer Market, But Will it Disappoint?


The year of virtual reality is here.

A variety of virtual reality products are beginning to appear on the market, while market experts predict everything from new entertainment experiences to something that may even change human behavior. But with all the hoopla, is VR poised to disappoint?

The biggest difference between 2-D video and virtual reality or VR content is that a user wearing a VR headset is actually "inside" a scene and surrounded by the experience. In some cases, users can even interact with what they’re seeing.

Imagine being surrounded by an underwater seascape and coming face to face with a whale. In another scene, you are in a virtual hotel. Holding a controller in each hand, you see these instruments as virtual hands in front of you. There is a briefcase you can open, a telephone you can pick up and an elevator you can ride to a different floor. Surrounded by a large, multi-story hotel, users almost forget that they are, in reality, in a small room.

Gamer Andrew Davis sampled a virtual reality headset at an electronics store.

“I can look left or around my shoulder and I see the entire world expand that way, just as much as it's expanding in front of me. You’re definitely inside of it,” said Davis.

FILE - Attendees wearing Oculus Rift virtual reality headsets view a 3-dimensional video for the "Pacific Rim: Jaeger Pilot" video game during the 2014 Comic-Con International Convention in San Diego, California, July 25, 2014.

FILE - Attendees wearing Oculus Rift virtual reality headsets view a 3-dimensional video for the "Pacific Rim: Jaeger Pilot" video game during the 2014 Comic-Con International Convention in San Diego, California, July 25, 2014.

Many consumers who are not gamers find virtual reality to be an exciting experience.

“I think it’s the start of something. Technology has always grown and is continuing to grow, so I think that this is just the start of what’s to come,” said Christina Gibson who wants a headset for her upcoming birthday.

When it comes to VR headsets, there are quite a few options that span a huge price range. They range from cardboard viewers where users can insert a mobile phone and view downloaded VR content, to the more sophisticated Gear VR that works with a Samsung smartphone. On the more expensive end, the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive connect to the computer. The Vive allows the user to move about the room and sensors will track the movement.

Dearth of content

With all this gear, users are hungry for content.

“I think what you’re going to find is that right now there’s very little compelling content,” said Todd Richmond, director of Advanced Prototypes and Transition at the University of Southern California Institute for Creative Technologies. “We’re really in the Wild Wild West of content creation for virtual environments."

VR is still in its infancy. Creating content takes expertise and those making it are still learning and experimenting with the hardware and software currently available.

“I think once units start to get into people’s hands because the content’s not there, because the technology is still a little glitchy (problematic), and kind of a pain in the butt to use, you’re going to see a downside and some backlash," Richmond said. "But then it’s going to come back because the technologies just have the potential to do amazing things.”

“Things are happening a lot faster than mobile and a lot faster than the PC revolution," said Anthony Batt, co-founder of Wevr. The company provides a web service that distributes VR content. "We’re seeing new innovations, new hardware, new software arriving every day.”

FILE - Participants attend the 'Collisions. A Virtual Reality World Premiere' event at the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland January 21, 2016.

FILE - Participants attend the 'Collisions. A Virtual Reality World Premiere' event at the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland January 21, 2016.

Huge potential

VR experts see applications in the fields of education, health care, journalism and commerce.

“Imagine now I go in and I look at a product. So instead of seeing it on a screen, I can now put it on and I can see myself in it,” Richmond said.

VR will challenge filmmakers and transform how movies are made and what they look like.

“A lot of film directors that are entering into VR video actually have to unlearn all the filmmaking techniques and re-learn the new medium of VR video,” said Batt.

VR content creators say this medium can also impact basic human behavior.

“It’s going to affect the way we record our memories. If you have children why do you want to take just a single photo? Why don’t you take a 360 video of the experience so when they’re 15, they can actually go sit in the experience that they just had with you? So it’s going to affect everything,” Batt said.

As to what VR looks like as this new medium matures, consumers will have to stay tuned.

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