Last year, it seemed like we were seeing an endless parade of articles about virtual reality’s future. MIT invented video you could touch, eye-tracking was released at the beginning of the year, and someone kickstarted an omni-directional treadmill that should have ushered in a Ready Player One-style entertainment future.
But today, a person still can’t walk through a photograph of their child’s birthday party. There are no video arcades in North America where players can strap themselves into fully immersive treadmills (or if there are, they certainly aren’t yet well known). And if you reach out to touch video, you’ll get a fist-full of nothing. Critics are beginning to ask, what happened to VR’s future?
The internet is full of articles bemoaning VR, crying out that the end of the medium is nigh. They cite low sales figures and slow rollouts of promised tech (like Microsoft’s Scorpio). And while it may feel like virtual reality is progressing slowly in comparison to other technology, we have to remember that this is the first time we’ve introduced a truly new medium in a long time. Can we give it a break?
The first personal computer came out in 1975. (That’s ignoring the many years when computers were the size of laboratories, or only the purview of big expensive companies.) It was an unassembled kit that, when built, could only display 256 discrete values, or character codes. That means no graphics — just numbers, letters, and basic symbols. Twelve years later, Dan Gutman wrote an article bemoaning that the predicted revolution was “in shambles”, with only 15% of American homes owning a computer. Was it the end of personal computing?
Okay, obviously it was not. But it was another ten years before we acknowledged that computers were now indispensable, with 75% of Americans owning at least one.
But wait, you say! What about cell phones? It didn’t take cell phones twenty years to develop from giant bricks in our cars to the tiny computers we know and love today. Right?
So, so wrong.
The first mobile phone was commercially released in Japan in 1979, and in the United States in 1983. They had an average talk time of half an hour, and took about ten hours to charge — but despite that there were waiting lists to buy them, and thousands were sold. (Lots of eager early adopters. Sound familiar?) It took another nine years before the first smartphone was released, and it wasn’t the iPhone, which wouldn’t come out for another 15 years. It was the Simon Personal Communicator, made by IBM in 1992. Most people won’t recognise it, but the trajectory from it to a smartphone is easy to see.
So the next time you read an article about the death of virtual reality, remind detractors that it took twenty two years to get from commercially available personal computers to market penetration, and a whopping twenty four years for smartphones to do the same. And smart phones were building off the computers that were being created in parallel! Virtual reality is jumping off completely on its own, and waiting around for computers to get good enough to really rock it.
We’re just at the beginning of VR’s trajectory — and we can’t wait to see where it lands.
Written by Wren Handman for www.hammerandtusk.com.