David Eide – Opinions Columnist
In the past couple of years there has been a major spike in interest toward virtual reality technology with new headsets like the Valve Index or the Playstation VR being released in the last half decade or so. While these products mostly receive attention as gaming accessories, I think they have a ton of potential outside the realm of video games and could potentially revolutionize a number of fields. However, I am skeptical about the efforts of companies such as Meta (Facebook) to push VR as a replacement for services such as messaging or shopping as the technology is not suited to this end. I think over the course of this decade we are likely to see VR really coming into its own so hopefully you can look back on this piece and say that I saw it coming.
The history of VR goes back to the mid-70s with organizations like NASA developing rudimentary forms of the technology for various training uses. However, basically every attempt to apply the technology commercially ended in horrible failure due to the technological limitations of the day. A favorite example of mine is the Nintendo Virtual Boy, a portable virtual reality console released in 1995 whose display only featured the colors black and red and was so bulky and cumbersome that it was basically impossible to actually go anywhere with it. A similar trend occurred with almost every other attempt at a commercial VR headset for the next few decades, as the technology simply was not available yet. This finally began to change in the 2010s with the announcement of the Oculus Rift, the first piece of commercial VR hardware that really made use of technological advances. The Rift’s announcement set off a wave of other announcements and soon many other companies such as Sony or Valve were putting out market ready VR headsets that actually worked as promised. As it stands currently, VR is still pretty pricey although it is getting more and more affordable and it may become accessible to the average consumer in the next three to four years.
While VR gaming is super interesting and fun based on my limited experiences with it, I think VR has so many other applications. One that comes to mind is in tourism. A lot of talk has been had about the environmental consequences of long-distance flights but as of now there isn’t really a replacement for actually visiting a site and walking around it. VR can fill that gap, providing the ability to actually walk around a site and experience the sights and sounds without the massive carbon footprint that comes from flying on a plane. Similarly, VR could have a major impact on education. Students might be able to have a ground level view of historical events they could only read about before or could perform lab experiments that may be too risky or expensive for a public school to perform. Healthcare is also a field that might see widespread adoption of VR technology as practitioners could use it to practice new skills without putting actual people at risk or to simulate surgeries.
There are many different fields that VR could impact, but don’t mistake me for an evangelist who thinks that VR will completely reshape how we interact with the world. Yes, virtual reality has a lot of potential, but as a supplement to what already exists, not as a total replacement. Unfortunately, this is not the perspective taken by Meta (Facebook) one of the biggest pushers of VR at the moment. It would be pretty difficult not to have noticed Meta’s recent pushing of their so-called “Metaverse”, a nebulously defined platform utilizing VR to replace live commerce and interpersonal interactions. I think this effort is ultimately doomed to fail; putting on a VR headset to go shopping or attend a work meeting is a lot more of a hassle than clicking “Buy” on Amazon or using Google Meet. I find that people usually wish to maximize convenience and I do not think the Metaverse as a concept is very convenient. It feels futuristic and so it attracts a lot of attention, but it is kind of a step backwards compared to where we are now. This assessment has been realized with Meta losing millions of dollars due to the general lack of interest in the Metaverse, and I suspect most other companies trying similar ventures will quietly shelve them, as they should.
Overall, I think the outlook is very good for VR in the 2020s. More and more games will be made exclusively for the format, and we might even start seeing VR movies which have a lot of potential in my opinion. Furthermore, VR headsets will start becoming common in hospitals or schools, kind of like how Smart Boards all suddenly appeared once the technology was available and the price was feasible. I look forward to seeing how VR technology evolves and is integrated into our society in the coming years. Hopefully it will be making the world just a bit of a better place to live in, wishful thinking though that may be.