While the year 2016 has been widely recognized as the single biggest year for virtual reality (VR) headset hype, industry experts such as Cathy Hackl and Adario Strange have predicted that 2018 has a chance of turning out to be the most explosive year for VR headsets to date; however, the exact chance that the VR industry has to strongly capture mainstream eyes in the near future will hinge largely on how well its marketing can compel the public to become both more engaged in its content and appreciative of its science.
Whereas any media viewed on a screened device is limited by the screen’s physical dimensions, the most ideal quality of VR is intended to do away with those limitations entirely. While the primary function of VR headsets isn’t hard to break down on paper, the way that the technology has historically developed and the fine details that distinguish different headset models from one another run far deeper than what meets the eye. The following will be a brief rundown on what makes VR headsets tick, the path that VR technology has taken to its current state, and experts’ predictions for the industry’s performance in the near future.
A trip down the VR timeline
The earliest recorded instance of any attempt resembling VR is traceable back to the mid-19th century. Far from manifesting in the form of the sleek, steel-shelled solutions of today, the oldest known productions of the world’s first VR pioneers were simply panoramic 3D murals painted on walls.
Nearly a century after the time that popularized optical illusions from panoramic paintings, VR pioneer Morton Heilig created a 3D image generator that supplemented immersion in the image with controlled air blowing, pre-recorded sounds and controlled smells. Heilig’s device was referred to as the Sensorama.
In 1961, four years after Heilig’s Sensorama, a head-tracking video projection product called the Headsight device was released by Philco Corporation. Headsight devices used a simple embedded video screen to create simulations that could be used for innovative military training modules.
Following the release of Headsight was the Ultimate Display, invented by Ivan Sutherland in 1965. Ultimate Display was the first VR device to work with a wired computer connection. Though the models that preceded it are considered earlier forays into the beginnings of the VR field, the Ultimate Display was the first to successfully produce what many would consider a legitimate “virtual world” experience.
It wasn’t until 1987, at which point there had been well over a century of pioneering VR device production, that the term “virtual reality” was officially coined by VPL Research founder Jaron Lanier. It was in the early-to-mid 80s that the concept of VR began to gain serious traction in entertainment media through generation-defining classics such as Tron and Star Trek.
The early 90s saw the increased introduction of VR elements to numerous arcade games and headsets made as accessories to consoles from major game companies such as Sega and Nintendo. By the end of the 90s, with resounding box office success of The Matrix and the increasingly common application of VR as a post-warzone therapy resource, VR had become more heavily romanticized in pop culture and recognized for its practical utility than ever.
After more than a decade of refinement throughout the 2000s, VR technology had gained enough of a mainstream following for projects such as the Oculus Rift to receive generous crowdfunding support. Things that had once been the stuff of 70s and 80s-era science fiction, such as the iconic “Back to the Future” hoverboard, became increasingly replicable with VR headsets such as those included in a bundle with the Nintendo’s Wii Balance Board
In 2014, Sony’s Project Morpheus model headset was released just one month prior to the Federal Trade Commission’s approval of Facebook’s $2 billion Oculus Rift purchase. In the same year, on the 25th of the June, Google Cardboard was released as the search engine giant’s long-awaited pet project for head-mounted iOS and Android smartphone system navigation. Between Google itself and third-party providers, over 10 million Google Cardboard units have currently been shipped to date.
VR headset model classifications
Though many of these little ocular dimension-warping devices may seem superficially similar, the specific mechanisms that make their magic possible and their intended uses are oftentimes different. Whereas certain VR headsets are created simply for more immersive smartphone app enjoyment, others such as the Oculus Rift are made to take on desktop PC-centric tasks.
The ways that VR headsets as whole can be used extend from creating a more productive workflow to an interactive virtual gaming field trip. Though different VR headsets are made with different specific design directions, the overarching goal that links them all is fully immersive 3D environment projection witht the best possible suspension of disbelief.
Today, the standard VR headset model’s 3D display usually comes from data fed into its base through an HDMI cable connected to a central console. A properly working VR headset should be able to maintain its simulation no matter where the head turns while it’s mounted. The differences between separate VR headset models not only includes the manner in which they operate but also the extent to which users can actively manipulate their virtual experience. VR headset models like the Gear VR come with a motion controller that allows the wearer to manipulate and modify the 3D environment they see with more precision. Generally speaking, the level of sophistication in a VR headset’s build will be correlated with the extent to which a user can freely control their experience of virtual environment without losing immersion.
Standalone VR headset models
One of the most ambitious areas that may notable VR headset developers are currently involved in is the “standalone” model. Wireless VR headsets that need no physical connection to a nearby console or computer, such as the Samsung Gear VR, are what constitute the standalone VR headset model category. The wireless design of a standalone model naturally gives the wearer more mobility than the alternative. In the best-case scenario, upcoming standalone VR headsets such as the HTC Vive Focus could give users a near-limitless range of movement on a universally unrestricted scale.
Today’s major telecommunication companies, computer entertainment agencies and technology corporations alike are deadlocked in a fierce battle to consistently raise the bar for innovativeness and immersion in the most advanced VR solutions available. While VR head hype has simmered down slightly since its peak in 2016 and the rise of augmented reality (AR), the VR projects currently undergoing production in the field have continually grown more ambitious. Statista reports that the installed base of VR headsets was 7 million in 2016, and by 2020, experts predict that the installed base could be nearly triple that of its 2016 size at a figure as high as 20 million. Time will only tell just what tech giants such as Sony, Microsoft, Valve, HTC and Oculus will have in store for the latest VR endeavors that have yet to be unveiled.
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