At its most basic definition, virtual reality is immersive multimedia. In Wikipedia terms, VR is computer technology that replicates an environment, real or imagined and simulates a user's physical presence and environment to allow for user interaction. Still not getting it? Okay, at its core, virtual reality uses objects like headsets which allow people to immerse themselves and experience virtual settings. So, in the real world, let’s say you’re sitting in your mom’s basement in Cleveland, but through the magic of virtual reality you’re instantly livin’ la vida loca at Carnaval in Rio, swimming with sharks in Fiji and dancing on-stage with Beyonce (hey, this is my virtual world and I’ll make lemonade if I want to).
Like smartphones, hoverboards and clones, the first traces of virtual reality came from the world of science fiction. A short story published in 1935, "Pygmalion's Spectacles,” by Stanley G. Weinbaum (why does every sci-fi author have to go with the middle initial? Be more innovative than that, Stan) is recognized as one of the earliest works that explores virtual reality, describing it as a “goggle-based virtual reality system with holographic recording of fictional experiences including smell and touch.” In the 1950s, an inventor, Morton Heilig, came up with “Experience Theater”, whose aim was to make the movie-experience a thrill to all the senses. By 1962, he built a prototype of his vision, dubbed the Sensorama (can’t wait for the biopic), along with five short films for it to display. Predating digital computing, the Sensorama worked, but was a clunky device that never caught on.
So, why is now the right time for virtual reality to become a reality? It all starts with being able to reach the consumer market, which Samsung, Sony, Google can now do thanks to technological advances in a head mounted display that is personal, portable and affordable. If VR is immersive software, think of the headset as your computer screen.
A company called Oculus VR is the standard bearer, which is amazing considering it’s first headset prototype was built in a garage and funded on Kickstarter. The story went viral and then Mark Zuckerberg bought the startup company for $2 billion, declaring VR as the “most social platform” in the world. Critics and insiders initially balked at the seemingly random purchase but two years later, Oculus looks to be one of Zucks best and most forward-thinking moves in a tumultuous last few years.
Like with most technology breakthroughs you gots to pay to play. The first Oculus Rift headsets were released in March 2016 for around $600 a pop. That’s a steep price to pay for a non-standalone device that has to be connected by a cable to a PC running Microsoft Windows in order to work. Samsung’s Galaxy offers a mid-priced ($300 and up), wire-free, mobile VR experience where your headset is strapped directly onto your smartphone. Reviews for both products have been positive with most agreeing that the tech has a long way to go in reaching virtual reality’s infinite possibilities. If the thought of spending a paycheck to give yourself motion-sickness makes you ill, go for a bargain basement VR headset like Google Cardboard (exactly what it sounds like), which allows you to experience virtual reality for the price of a movie ticket ($15). And, who cares if you look more like a junkie than a tech junkie with a cardboard box plastered over your eyes? At the end of the day, you’re only going to be using it to watch Pornhub in the dark of your mom’s basement anyway.
The most exciting thing about VR is that we’re really just in the infancy of a potentially seismic shift in everything from entertainment to education to business. Sure, it’s easy to conceive of the incredible movie-going and gaming applications that we’ll soon be experiencing but the technology has massive potential to revolutionize many different areas of education, business, and travel as well. From a business perspective, the money flowing into VR tech development has been unprecedented and it's going to be a tech arms race like we haven’t seen since the invention of the first computer. The money and influence is going to push technological advancement further and further with every big name in the game jumping into the fray. One thing’s for sure though, strap in because it’s going to be a wild and, thanks to the new tech, realistic ride.