At the end of the 20th century, a movie called "The Matrix" imagined a dystopian future in which humans were imprisoned without their knowledge in a virtual reality (VR) while their body heat was harnessed for energy. The movie came out at the culmination of a decade that witnessed the internet transform from a curiosity into a cultural and economic juggernaut. The rapidly changing landscape made rapid technological progress, particularly in regard to computers, seem inevitable.
At the time virtual reality seemed like an emerging technology that would soon be found in every home. Nearly two decades later the VR technology revolution has yet to arrive and it is starting to feel like it never will. Technical issues have plagued the development of immersive environments as have limitations in programming and processing. After almost two decades of unfulfilled promises, it is understandable that people may be skeptical of VR. However, small progress seems to be occurring, and in a sustainable way that may eventually--finally--lead to real results.
One area where VR is finally gaining a foothold is gaming. There have been a number of attempts at creating VR gaming systems. One of the most successful to date is Sony’s Playstation VR which works with their Playstation 4 (PS4) system. It should be noted that although sales have been “successful” by VR device standards with 2 million units sold, the PS4 itself has sold over 80 million units to date. That means only 5 percent of PS4 users have bought the VR package.
The low sales certainly don’t reflect a lack of interest in the technology. In 2012 a Kickstarter campaign was launched by a company called Oculus VR to fund a VR headset called the Oculus Rift. Raising $2.5 million, several models of the headset were developed and in 2014 Facebook purchased the Oculus VR for $2 billion. The many iterations of the Rift that have come out since then have impressed but sales have been lackluster. So why is such a desirable technology failing to gain traction?
To understand the answer, it’s important to differentiate between the VR that exists in the collective consciousness of society and the reality of VR. The dream of VR is a total, or at the very least, substantial immersive experience. The problem with VR is that humans experience the world through the senses of sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste, yet VR only addresses the first two in any significant way. That may be changing, however, thanks to smartphones.
Technological innovation, in general, benefits significantly from economic drivers. It’s been known for years that an immersive VR experience would require realistic tactile feedback. Particularly now, after years of research and successes in audio and visual immersion, touch seems to be the key to creating a truly transformative VR environment. Plenty of money has been invested into developing haptic gloves or body suits that seek to improve tactile immersion with mixed success. The problem seems to be, unsurprisingly, that the sense of touch is extremely complicated. For the technology to succeed, it will have to occur in small steps.
Fortunately, smartphones have created an aggressive market for producing less ambitious tactile feedback features. Rather than produce the immersive experience VR requires, the touchscreens of smartphones and tablets simply wish to add textures and touch cues where none currently exist. Touch screens are incredibly useful, but they lack the tactile feedback that mechanical keyboards provided. Integrating haptic (touch) feedback into touch screens creates a more satisfying user experience and thus sells more phones, tablets, etc.
With the narrow focus of creating textures and touch cues on touch displays, research has really had an opportunity to focus in on the details of haptic feedback. As a result, researchers have learned a great deal about how the sense of touch is processed and how to create the illusion of a texture of tactile response though vibrations and force sensors. The touchscreen haptic sensor and feedback market is projected to grow significantly over the next few years which promises even more understanding and breakthroughs for the industry. The resulting innovations are now being brought into VR to create more realistic wearables.
The technology has a long way to go before it will feel immersive, but with touchscreens organically driving haptic feedback technology, there is finally a reason to hope for real progress. Similarly, although the technologies involved in the Rift or Playstation VR headsets are impressive, there is still significant room for improvement. Gaming may provide the economic impetus for companies to devote resources to improve the technology. Although sales of the PS4 VR headset were small compared to PS4 sales, the 2 million VR headsets sold are still an impressive number for a $200 add-on feature. Reviews have been positive and there is a reason to believe that the next console from Sony will continue to pursue VR.
The video game industry is currently worth ~$25 billion with double-digit growth expected for the foreseeable future. If the industry starts to incorporate more aspects of VR in their next-generation consoles, as seems to be the case, the innovation in creating a more realistic visual, audio and tactile experience could grow exponentially. The combination of strong processing power and artificial intelligence also should help improve the overall immersive experience.
A fully immersive VR environment is probably decades away. However visual immersion, audio immersion, and huge improvements in haptic feedback are likely over the next decade. Whether it’s at amusement parks, in automobiles or on your smartphone, companies are increasingly interested in augmenting reality if not fully replacing it with a virtual experience. These more modest economic goals should propel the technology along and gradually improve the VR experience. It may not be the Matrix, but it should make for some interesting gaming systems in the future.