Virtual Reality In 2021
Maximum PC|May 2021
How close to a different reality can virtual reality really take us? Sam Lewis
By Sam Lewis

Over the course of the past seven decades, the term “virtual reality” has been thrown around quite a bit within the tech world. However, during that time, it has actually become a rather divisive and subjective form of entertainment. Tedious and awkward are just two ways it has been described. The term itself most certainly encompasses far more now than when the modern take on the technology first debuted in 2016. Heck, today you can get VR headsets for your phone that cost just 10 bucks, while on the flip side you could easily spend over $1,000 getting all the right gear for the ultimate virtual-reality rig.

What VR has been missing since its conception, however, is simplicity and efficiency, and that is seemingly finally starting to change, with better-supported tech and easier-to-use setups.

The bottom line is that there have been many attempts at VR, which have just not taken off and hit the mainstream market in the same way as gaming PCs and consoles have. They aren’t as accessible and affordable, and with many setups, you need a powerful PC to run them properly. Space is a massive factor, too, as you need a comfortable area to use it, and this can be a problem for many.

This month, we’re taking a look at VR as a whole—where it has come from, some of the latest advances, and the trajectory that this sector of technology is heading in. Will VR headsets finally replace the trusty old monitor? Or is there room for both in the future world we’re building?

VR Development

The notion of virtual reality has been used in the tech sector over the last seven decades, but the rate of progress has been slow. Its aim is admirable and enticing: To take you into a fully realized alternate dimension, where you can take a step away from your day-to-day life and become fully immersed in whatever game or media you’d like. When you think about virtual reality, you immediately think of a VR headset/goggles; this concept has been around for years and has stuck true to its original designs in a way.

One of the goals for the technology is that the user should feel as though they are in a different world. This concept could be seen back in the 1950s, with the invention of the Sensorama. Cinematographer Morton Heilig conceived the idea in his 1955 paper “The Cinema of the Future.” His design was a machine where the user sat inside a box and watched a movie. This heightened all the user’s senses because they were entirely enclosed. By 1962, he had a working prototype that was able to show wide-angle stereoscopic 3D video. Other features included stereo sound, wind, vibrations, and even aromas. The prototype launched with five short films to preview, one of which was a motorcycle ride through New York City. This idea of being able to virtually travel and experience different lifestyles is still partly what fuels the use of virtual reality to this day. Thankfully, The Walking Dead wasn’t around in the ’60s; we can’t begin to imagine what aroma they would have used for that.

Skip forward to 1965, and the form factor we see today was starting to take shape. A scientist called Ivan Sutherland started the idea of what we call virtual reality. In his essay titled “The Ultimate Display,” he described a computer with a connected display that gave users the chance to gain familiarity with concepts not realizable in the physical world, “a looking glass into a mathematical wonderland.” Scientific, we know, but the concept of a “virtual reality” was there.

Moving on to 1968, Sutherland and some of his students created the world’s first head-mounted display. Pretty impressive for the time, right? The system was made of two CRT monitors with mirrors and prisms inside. This allowed for digital wireframe graphics to be superimposed over what you could see. The device had six degrees of tracking, with three ultrasonic transmitters on the headset, picked up by four receivers hung from a ceiling. You get the sense that this wasn’t a small device by any means. Sutherland named his invention the Sword of Damocles. Unfortunately, it didn’t see much progression, probably due to its expense and impracticality.

The US military’s work on vehicle simulation, specialists at NASA, and researchers at the University of Utah were predominantly behind the progress of VR technology in the ’60s and ’70s. Alongside significant advances in computer graphics technology, VR began to gain heavy traction in the 1980s. By 1985, a team at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California, created the Virtual Environment Workstation. This creation was wide-angle stereoscopic, featuring two LCD TV displays and, last but not least, a motorcycle helmet. When life gives you lemons…? The display could be an artificial computer-generated environment or a real environment relayed from remote video cameras. Along with this creation, the term “virtual reality” was conceived by a member of the team that made gloves for the device. The paired gloves could detect movement from the user’s fingers via a series of sensors. This created a computer-generated image of your hand in the virtual environment that you could use for interaction. So, even from the mid-1980s, the concept of being able to interact virtually within a simulated alternate reality was already set in stone and would scope the future of VR.

It wasn’t until the early ’90s that gaming and VR had the opportunity to meet. Arcade machines first brought the experience to the public. Virtuality Group introduced a line of advanced VR machines between 1991 and 1993. Again, they used stereoscopic 3D visuals, with a whopping resolution of 276x372 (and some people complain about VR graphics today). Unfortunately, these arcade systems just didn’t gain enough traction. Was the introduction too soon? The performance simply wasn’t there to make it a pleasurable enough experience. Sure, it might have been fine for a short arcade blast, but to take it to the next level was a tough ask.

Sega was one of the first companies to attempt to launch a system for use at home. The problem was that the arcade machines were very expensive, so to package the technology up for home use in the ’90s was a difficult task, to say the least. Sega VR was announced in 1991— versions of the headset were planned for both arcades and the Sega Genesis console. In 1993, the Sega VR headset was finally announced at CES, but that was the last glimpse of optimism the headset saw. It never materialized, due to complications in production and the fact that it caused severe headaches and motion sickness in its users. Yikes. It was probably for the best that this headset stayed in its prototype form, however, because what happened to the next mainstream VR release wasn’t exactly a great move for this sector of the market.

Nintendo’s Virtual Boy was a catastrophic attempt at VR, but it played an important role in the technology’s progress. Released in 1995, it aimed to be the world’s first portable video game console capable of displaying true 3D graphics. Exciting claims, especially for the mid-’90s. The hype was real on this one. In reality, it was a 32-bit tabletop console that could only show imagery in red and black. Yes, you did read that correctly. It launched at $175 ($302 today, with inflation), which was a lot for a console that couldn’t even play in full color. Customers complained about the screen, the lack of software support, and the uncomfortable nature of the headset, which all led to the Virtual Boy’s commercial flop.

A NEW ERA IN VR

After that bombshell, VR took a step backward out of the mainstream market, and wasn’t to be properly attempted again until 2012. A Kickstarter campaign introduced the Oculus Rift, the first proper progression of virtual reality, stepping away from a gimmicky trend. Palmer Luckey began working on the system between 2009 and 2012. He figured that previous headsets had been very expensive to produce, due to their requirement of complicated lenses that would fix the distortion often associated with having the screen so close to the eyes. He decided to use a cheaper lens but minimize the distortion through clever use of software. Paired with a wider field of view and much better screens, thanks to improvements in technology in the last decade, it created a huge step forward for VR headsets. The Kickstarter raised millions of dollars, clearly showing a huge love for the concept. Valve would help out during this time with its tech knowledge on tracking, to drive PC VR forward. It’s true, it did start the re-emergence of VR, and every headset since has followed a similar format. For once, it delivered a promising experience for many.

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