Storytellers have transported audiences to alternate dimensions for thousands of years, from books, movies and, more recently, video games. But virtual reality is about to transform storytelling once again into a full visual and auditory immersion in another world. A player who, as in “Tron," steps inside the video game. A person who enters a “Matrix"-style simulated world.
This kind of virtual reality has been available to the military for decades, who have used the technology for training programs like flight simulators. It's been available in medicine for surgery simulations. And in manufacturing, where car makers and ship builders use virtual reality for virtual prototypes.
But the technology, which requires very high-end graphics, motion sensors and computer processors, has cost tens of thousands of dollars or more per unit. Up until now. With the mobile boom, computer processors, display screens and motion sensors have all become better, cheaper, and smaller.
Today's high-end prototype headsets, most of which will hit the consumer market next year, are like a first-generation Star Trek holodeck. These "tethered" headsets — including the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and Sony Playstation VR — transport you to a virtual world at a fidelity good enough to make you feel you are really there.
But even the lower-end headsets available today, such as the Mattel View-Master VR, the Samsung Gear VR, and the hundreds of takes on the Google Cardboard, are already good enough to give a taste of virtual reality. The horror games will scare you, and the virtual roller coaster rides will make the bottom drop out of your stomach.
The Fibrum VR Roller Coaster app, for example, available for both iOS and Android, has been downloaded more than 4 million times, according to the company. The Android YouTube app already offers tens of thousands of 360-degree and virtual reality videos that can be experienced with the low-end mobile headsets. Sports fans with Samsung Gear VR headsets can even watch live NBA games in virtual reality. The first live VR game was October's season opener — Golden State Warriors take on the New Orleans Pelicans.
How big will virtual reality get?
Most experts who've worked in technology expect virtual reality to be the next major computing platform. Both consumer surveys and sales numbers seem to be showing huge growth in the area. Industry analysts are also predicting rapid growth. In fact, if anything, their estimates are already proving to be too low.
For example, the VR Council industry group predicts that six million virtual reality headsets are expected to be in use by 2016, and 30 million in 2018. Juniper Research, a high-tech analyst group, released its own projection in mid-September — three million headsets in 2016, and 30 million by 2020.
But in October, Google had released new numbers around its Google Cardboard virtual reality application — that it had been installed 15 million times. Soon afterwards, The New York Times distributed more than 1 million headsets to its subscribers, and, in November, the Samsung Gear VR sold out the first day of its release.
Consumer surveys show that demand for virtual reality remains high. In November, a poll by Greenlight VR and Touchstone Research showed that 64 percent of Baby Boomers, 70 percent of Generation X, 73 percent of Millennials and 79 percent of teens and tweens were very excited about virtual reality. And seeing is believing — 79 percent of people who tried virtual reality wanted to experience the technology again, with 81 percent saying they would recommend the devices to their friends.
Even more relevant, giving the coming holiday shopping season, 70 percent of teens and tweens said they would ask their parents for a virtual reality device.
So what will be the impact of virtual reality?
No, virtual reality will not replace the World Wide Web. The Web is an excellent way to distribute information, text, images, and videos. Nor will virtual reality replace any previous medium. Sculpture did not do away with painting. Radio did not eliminate books and newspapers. Television did not do away with movie theaters. Recorded music did not eliminate live performances.
Virtual reality is, instead, a brand new medium. Rather than communicate just sound, or images, or stories, or data, virtual reality communicates experiences.
Climbing Mount Everest is a dangerous, difficult experience that only a few people will ever attempt. But a virtual climb may be as cold and uncomfortable as the real thing.
Already, the Google Expeditions program has already brought virtual reality field trips to over 100,000 school children. Similar to the public television show “The Magic School Bus," virtual reality already takes students to the surface of Mars, to the Great Barrier Reef, to the Acropolis, to Antarctica, and to Great Wall of China — places impossible or impractical to get to in real life.
Real estate and tourism are already being transformed, as Google Cardboard users can take virtual tours of far-away properties or homes before they are even built.
Virtual reality will accelerate the adoption of telecommuting by allowing companies to replace some of their physical offices with virtual ones. And more bricks-and-mortars retailers will disappear, replaced by virtual showrooms. Today's headsets aren't good enough to support this kind of multi-user interactivity. But next year's headsets will — and there are already vendors working on platforms to enable both virtual offices and virtual commerce.
In medicine, virtual reality has also been making an impact. Medical students have long been using simulators to learn surgery techniques, but virtual reality has also been successfully used for pain management, for treading Post-traumatic stress disorder and phobias, for calming patients during MRIs and other stressful procedures, and even during operations.
The Internet has transformed the world, as has the mobile industry. Now, because of the groundwork already laid by these two revolutions, virtual reality will arrive even faster, and change us in even more profound ways.