Nov 20 · 8 min readVirtual Reality had gotten a little dull. Even VR’s most prominent mage, John Carmack, got flustered with VR’s crawling pace of development and decided to jump ship to test his mettle at Artificial General Intelligence.I’m no Carmack but I also had this feeling a few years ago. For people who have been following or working with VR technology for decades, ubiquitous VR has always been around the corner . The problem is that, in reality, the corner has always been miles ahead.
I started my virtual reality journey at an arcade in 1994. The system was a behemoth of a machine, with an extremely low resolution, latency and refresh rate by today’s standards. Nevertheless, I was immediately captivated by the experience.
In 1995 I bought a Victormaxx VR headset for my SEGA Genesis, which should have been been rated as a torture device by the FCC. It left a long lasting impression on me, but not for the right reasons. I still have in my memory the smell of its plastics and the pain on my nose’s bridge. Padding was something the manufacturer seemed to never have heard of.I bought 5 regular games for it, which the seller promised me they would turn into VR as soon as I turned the headset on. That never happened. Basically I got scammed, although In hindsight, I’m 100% sure that guy had no idea what Virtual Reality was.
The Biggest Concerns. Despite the positives, there are some concerns about virtual reality. For example, some critics point out health and safety issues. If the technology is not used properly, users might suffer from health issues like seizures and other major discomfort. Some people could also trip and fall. There are also major privacy concerns with virtual reality. Some people fear that the headsets could lead to government surveillance, although there is no proof of that as of yet.
Just know that I could never play a single VR game with it. Head tracking was a rod on the headset that you clipped onto your shirt’s shoulder to get horizontal tracking in games. Basically, this “tracking” mapped to the left and right buttons on the Genesis gamepad.That same year I took my first steps in VR development with the now defunct VRML (Virtual Reality Modeling Language), which took me nowhere. I was basically developing for myself, without a headset and with absolutely no public in mind whatsoever. Internet wasn’t yet a word people knew about, I lived in a 40.000 people city and the only people that owned a PC for personal use were scoffed off as nerds.
In 1997 I wanted a proper headset to use with my Pentium PC, the VFX1. $1500 dollars was too expensive for a 17 year old guy.
Sadly, VR as a mainstream thing was born and died an infant. By the end of 2000, there wasn’t a single consumer headset on the market.I had to wait for almost 15 years, until 2012 whenI happened to serendipitously visit the MTBS3D forums where I met a young Palmer Luckey during the pre-Kickstarter campaign for the Oculus Rift DK1 (Dev Kit 1). I also got to meet most of the pioneers of this VR v2.0 generation.In 2013 I received my DK1 and started developing PHOBOS (my software to treat and research phobias which is now Open Source, although the code is deprecated as I haven’t maintained it due to moving onto Augmented Reality development in 2017).
I still have my DK1 and I have no plan of selling that piece of history. In 2014 I welcomed the DK2 and got a glimpse of the future of VR with positional tracking, but right before commercial launch, I jumped ship and purchased an HTC Vive, sold on the promise of true room-scale VR and tracked controls. I didn’t want to wait for Oculus to catch up.By the time the Oculus Rift launched in March 2016, I was certain it was not going to be a massively adopted peripheral. Marketed as a $800 seated experience -under fallacious pretenses to justify its shortcomings-, with no hand controls and tethered to a $1500 gaming PC.In the meantime, I also got to use and work with the GearVR and Google Cardboard since in 2015 I had co-founded Chaman, a VR Production Studio focusing on 360 video experiences.
Kids Aren’t the Only People Interested in VR. Both Generation Z and Millennials are interested in trying virtual reality, but Baby Boomers aren’t far behind. According to research by Greenlight VR and Touchstone Research, 64 percent of Baby Boomers have positive feelings about virtual reality.
By the end of 2016 it was clear to me that 360 video had little room for innovation and would not become a preferred way for the masses to consume video content.People like to passively consume passive media and even asking the viewer to look around is too much of an ask. If anything, volumetric video will be the way of the future and even the majority of it will probably will be blended with interactive VR and/or AR content and a small part of it will be fully passive video experiences where the viewer can stand anywhere on the scene but not affect outcomes.
Back to my high end headset, I started losing interest in my HTC Vive as an entertainment device for several reasons. The main one was becoming a father in November 2016, which killed a lot of my me-time and I had to forgo long gaming sessions. That left AAA gaming out of my scope and I had to switch to more casual gaming that allowed me to jump in and out of my sessions between the baby crying, pooping events, other parentally related crises and spending time with my wife.
Having to start the PC, clear out the toy wasteland in my play space and dealing with the quirks of PC gaming cannibalized my available play time and pushed my Vive to its case. I only used it in a few occasions to demo it to visitors, which started fading out over time since I was one of the first in my circles to have a baby. Parents are a lot less fun to hang out with than free/untethered people (pun intended).
PSVR headset was developed from Sony engineers tinkering in a Lab building quietly without any executive direction.
And so, my professional interest shifted to mobile Augmented Reality, which was a lot less cumbersome to develop for and way cheaper in terms of time investment and asset development costs. By that time I knew that mobile AR was only a stepping stone towards real “headset based” AR.For a long time I had been waiting for a decent AR headset with the potential for mainstream adoption. Microsoft’s Hololens was clearly far from being that device in its first iteration and Magic Leap had been a big cloud of smoke since its inception but the only company promising AR for the masses within an acceptable timeframe. As I write this at the end of 2019, Magic Leap is still very far away from its promise both in terms of technology, ergonomics, price and usability. The future for ML looks pretty bleak unless it can pull a miraculous 180.
Clearly, unless a White Swan event develops, we are still at least 5 years away from a decently compelling Augmented Reality headset that could start aspiring to replace smartphones as the main driver of content consumption and communication.By May 2019, I already had 2 kids and another one on the way. With “real” AR still beyond the horizon, I decided to give the Oculus Quest a chance to redeem VR in my eyes. And it did not disappoint.I bought one as soon as it launched and during my brief time with it (it got stolen along with 2 of my Macbook Pros and iPhone when a house I rented at the beach got breached) I came to love its portability, ease of use, and surprising quality for a mobile chipset. I bought a second Quest as soon as I could afford it.
With the Quest, you can turn it on and hop into any experience in less than a minute. I can do 5 minute Pistol Whip or Beat Saber sessions and be ready for my next parental side quest. I can take it anywhere on my backpack without needing to plug in anything anywhere. It’s instant, fully tracked VR with none of the hassles of a tethered device.This week, the Oculus Quest added one more item on its Pros list: Oculus Link, enabling high-end PCVR experiences through a USB chord. This feature alone ended my 20 year affair with Apple. With my MBP gone (stolen, actually) I decided to get a Razer Blade 15 gaming laptop just to use it with my Quest.
It Can Add Excitement To Sports. Virtual reality can have a big impact in the world of sports. For fans, virtual reality provides the opportunity to watch a sporting event like never before. Fans can watch an entire game or match feeling like they are in the middle of it all. There have been some major sporting events like the Super Bowl and the Final Four that are already implementing virtual reality into their viewing options. This could be the future for all sports.
By early next year, the Quest will add probably its second most important feature in its short history: tracked hands. With this input method, one more barrier to VR adoption will get thrown down so even my 92 year old grandfather will be able to use VR naturally. It’s not an euphemism, I got the old man to try VR back in the DK2 days and it was downright impossible to get him to use the Xbox gamepad. Now he will have an input method he’s been using for almost a century.For $400 you can now have compelling, fully fledged VR experiences. The Oculus Quest rendered smartphone based VR obsolete. Google and Samsung threw the towel. Samsung by not making its new smartphones compatible with GearVR and Google by discontinuing Daydream and open sourcing Cardboard -which BTW was open source way before Google appropriated the “cardboard based VR” concept and made it seem as it was a proprietary idea.
TLDR; if you are wondering whether you should buy an Oculus Quest, an Oculus Rift S, an HTC Vive or a Valve Index… well, it depends.
Virtual Reality Has ROI. While it might feel as if virtual reality has been around forever, it’s still a relatively new technology. This has caused some businesses to question whether virtual reality is actually beneficial. The truth: of course virtual reality has shown to have positive ROI. British travel group Thomas Cook reported a 190 percent increase in tours booked to New York City after offering a virtual reality experience of the city in their stores. Amnesty International reported a 16 percent increase in direct-debit donations brought on by its VR campaign.
If you are not rich and you already have a gaming PC, buy a Quest. You will have the best of both worlds in one device.
If you don’t have a gaming PC, buy a Quest.How about Playstation VR? Pass. Not worth it. It’s a previous generation device and the PS5 is around the corner.
If you do have the means, buy a Quest and a tethered headset -versatile as it may be, the Quest still lags behind in a few key specs recommended for high-end VR experiences.