First coined by industry veteran Jaron Lanier (Virtual Reality Society, 2015; Rheingold, 1991:16), “Virtual Reality” (VR) is not a new technology or idea. What we might now recognise as Virtual Reality may first have been described by Stanley G. Weinbaum in his 1935 short story Pygmalion’s Spectacles, about a device designed to “make real a dream”. More recently, the technology has transitioned from science fiction and into reality, with the technology advancing consistently since the 1980s, driven by both scientific practice and the entertainment industry (Waldern, n.d., Robertson and Zalenko, n.d.).

Recent years have seen a resurgence of VR in popular culture. The technology is attracting billions in investment (Facebook, 2014), millions of customers (UploadVR, 2016), and applications across industries (Lee and Stewart, n.d.).

This essay aims to explore the path that virtual reality has taken from its early days in research facilities to the home entertainment systems of today. Further, to discover exactly why VR made the transition from scientific tool to gaming peripheral, to outline what virtual reality adds to modern gaming, and to find an answer to the question; where is virtual reality having the largest impact?

Early development

The head mounted displays (HMDs) of modern virtual reality entertainment have their roots as early as the 1960s with Ivan Sutherland’s “Sword of Domacles” device from 1968 (Computer Science Museum, n.d.), designed to “immerse the viewer in a visually simulated 3D environment” (Steineck, 2016:27).

It wasn’t until the 1980s and 1990s, though, that Virtual Reality began to make it into popular entertainment. Films like Total Recall (1990), The Lawnmower Man (1992), and The Matrix (1999) along with Star Trek: Voyager’s Holodeck (1995) presented the concept of simulated realities to a wide audience.

As public interest grew, so did expectation for Virtual Reality’s potential, both in entertainment and elsewhere. Writing in 1991 of his own experiences with Virtual Reality assisted scientific research, Rheingold writes that he began to “understand why so many of the researchers in VR talk about the field’s potential with such fervor” (Rheingold, 1991:15).

Meanwhile in the entertainment industry, Virtuality by W Industries was seen at the time as the device that took Virtual Reality entertainment to the public for the first time (Engler, 1992:80), with affordable home virtual reality systems projected for 1994 (Engler, 1992:80).

In the 1990’s, virtual reality was clearly the wave of the near future. We would all soon be jacking in, waving our fingers to travel through strange neon geometric worlds, and experiencing adventures in perfectly simulated faraway places or times. 

(MxR at the University of Southern California, 2011)

Despite the excitement and expectation, and despite efforts from industry pioneers including Jaron Lanier, the 1990s never did see Virtual Reality as a widely adopted form of home entertainment. Skip Rizzo, Director for Medical Virtual Reality at the Institute for Creative Technologies of USC (in Robertson and Zalenko, n.d.) suggests that the reason for VR’s downfall in the 1990s was the advent of the internet. Rizzo continues;

Suddenly everyone was connected, and virtual reality was this ugly little brother lagging behind.

(Rizzo, n.d., in Robertson and Zalenko, n.d.)

This argument is taken further by author Linda Jacobson, who suggests (in Robertson and Zalenko, n.d.) that the progress being made in virtual reality hardware was stifled by the internet making widely available 3D design tools, causing “a lot of people [to start] focusing there and not the hardware”.

Others link this shift of interest to the shortcomings of the virtual reality systems that did see moderate success. Virtuality, the early-90s poster child of Virtual Reality entertainment, simply could not live up to the expectations set by pop culture’s depiction of VR as “a glorious vision of the future” (Foyle, 2015). The games that Virtuality had on offer simply did not suite their arcade setting. Foyle continues;

Virtuality games like Dactyl Nightmare or Legend Quest … typically cost anywhere from three to five dollars to play and only lasted about three minutes.

Added to that was the fact that it was nearly impossible to become accustomed to the complexity of the controls and the unfamiliar 3D worlds of these games in such a short amount of time.

(Foyle, 2015)

The amount of time that players had to get accustomed to VR games in order to enjoy them, and the amount of time they spent playing them, were at a disparity, and caused Virtuality to fall out of favour with gamers by the mid-90s (Foyle, 2015) with one reporter stating “The helmet was annoying and the game was boring” (Davies, 1993)

Additionally, the press coverage that the new technology attracted was less than positive in many cases. Rheingold, 1991, writes of the media’s take on Virtual Reality entertainment as a method for users to live out their vice-like fantasies.

The most lurid implications of VR have already been trumpeted in the mass media, via reports of what it just might make possible – such as “teledildonics” (simulated sex at a distance) or “electronic LSD” (simulations so powerfully addictive that they replace reality).”

(Rheingold, 1991)

Jacobson (in Robertson and Zalenko, n.d.) also attributes this media coverage to VR’s fall into disfavour, suggesting that the picture the media were writing of VR turned businesses away from the technology, thus removing investment and stagnating the industry.

It seems clear then that while virtual reality continued on as a tool utilised by researchers and academics (Mazza and Thonis, n.d.), the expectations that popular culture placed on VR accompanied by its own shortcomings in technology left it unable to fulfill the desires of gamers in the 1990s.

Why games?

But why is Virtual Reality so closely linked to entertainment and gaming in particular? As Rheingold wrote (1991:15), many of the researchers developing the technology at that time were excited about VR’s potential as a research and scientific aid above an entertainment system. Particularly, after the 1990s saw Virtual Reality rise and fall as an entertainment medium, why is it gaming peripherals that seem to be driving the resurgence?

Researchers at USC’s Institute for Creative Technologies MxR project (2011) describe how innovations in video game technology came as a direct result of research and invention on the part of virtual reality pioneers, specifically in the realms of computer graphics and 3D game worlds.

But virtual reality and videogames are not just linked by technology. Warren Robinett (in Rheingold, 1991:24) talks of the “allure” that virtual reality worlds and “well designed video games” share. This “allure” might today be attributed to immersion or “presence” (Madigan, 2010), the feeling of entertainment being “perceived as ‘real’ in the sense that the media users experience a sensation of being spatially located in the mediated environment” (Wissmath et al., 2009:116).

A truly powerful video game has to be a simulation of some kind of world, has to represent its key concepts graphically, and there has to be a way for the player to interact with the … simulated world

(Robinett in Rheingold, 1991:25)

Robinett’s description of a “truly powerful” video game is exactly what virtual reality promises to deliver users. Definitions of virtual reality often use the exact same language, including the Oxford English Dictionary which describes VR as a “simulation of a three-dimensional image or environment that can be interacted with.”

Madigan (2010) goes further and describes four characteristics of a “rich” immersive environment;

  1. multiple channels of sensory information;
  2. completeness of sensory information;
  3. cognitively demanding environments;
  4. a strong and interesting narrative, plot, or story

All but the fourth of these can be accentuated by virtual reality media.

It seems then that while virtual reality has its roots and successes in an academic environment, the ability for VR to take what makes video games so “alluring” in the words of Robinett and exaggerate them further makes it a naturally attractive medium for gamers with a desire for more immersion.

Here to stay?

Recently, though, the outlook for Virtual Reality has been looking much more promising. Compared to the state of virtual reality technology in the 1990s, the technology today meets expectations much more closely.

In 1992, Computer Gaming World magazine predicted that an affordable virtual reality entertainment was less than two years away (Engler, 1992:80), laying out the requirements for such a system as to “cost less than $500, come with at least one game and have an immersive hardware system with graphics equal to that of current video game consoles”. Today, we are beginning to reach this target, with the price of mid-range VR hardware – Sony’s Playstation VR (and the necessary hardware) – well inside this price (Griffiths, 2017). VR gets even cheaper with Samsung’s GearVR retailing at under £100 when discounting the price of the phone, which most customers are expected to already own (Lee and Stewart, n.d.).

Ben Delaney of CyberEdge Journal (in Robertson and Zalenko, n.d.) suggests that, in stealing the media limelight, the advent of the internet “did virtual reality a favour” and allowed it to continue to develop without constant media scrutiny. Funding was still available also. Scott Fisher, head of interactive media at USC (in Robertson and Zalenko, n.d.), describes how the Japanese government in particular continued to support “huge initiatives” in VR research. Mark Bolas  continues; “VR didn’t bust from my perspective. The VR hype busted” (cited in Robertson and Zalenko, n.d.).

The result of this continued but unhindered research is the solid re-emergence of virtual reality technology in the entertainment industry that we see today.

Facebook bought industry posterchild Oculus VR for $2.3 billion. That acquisition signaled to tech companies everywhere that VR wasn’t going to lose its sheen after sucking up millions of dollars in investment, as it did in the early ’90s.

(Statt, 2015)

This time though, unlike the 1990s, VR seems capable of attracting much more positive attention from consumers (Lee and Stewart, n.d.) and investors, possibly indicating its ability to stand on its own two feet as a real future of entertainment.

Currently however, virtual reality is still somewhat of a niche, even if a “billion dollar niche,” still driven and supported by “core” gamer groups, not the wider population of “casual” gamers (Lee and Stewart, n.d.). A number of possible reasons for VR’s low adoption rate are often put forth, including the high price point of high-end hardware or the fact that the experience still does not match expectations (Dingman, 2016). As Weinbaum (1935) expressed; “the realer the better,” yet

A poll by OnePulse (2015) found that the majority of consumers, including gamers, are willing to pay between £5-£15 for a virtual reality experience, much lower than the average cost of console blockbusters, reflecting consumer expectations for the title (Parkin, 2016).

Additionally, It is also possible that using virtual reality simply is not attractive to the wider casual gaming audience, citing the behavioural changes that wearing a HMD must bring to casual gamers and that “the immersion VR causes may overwhelm” some users (Lee and Stewart, n.d.).

VR games are often launching at a lower price than the blockbusters and below the £15 high-point set by consumers (James, 2016), and often provide a very short experience to alleviate the behavioural issues Lee and Stewart (n.d.) raised in attracting new/casual users.  Furthermore, the larger market of casual gamers who are not entirely on board with virtual reality still (Lee and Stewart, n.d.) are perhaps driving individual game prices down further in the hopes of attracting the untapped casual audience.

Other Fields

Perhaps, then, whilst virtual reality continues to develop as an entertainment medium for only a percentage of its intended market, virtual reality’s true calling lies elsewhere.

There’s a risk if all this is only driven by gaming. I just hope that doesn’t happen, because with these headsets we’ve got now, there’s so much other stuff you can do. I can see a renaissance, in education, in health, in so many things.

(Rizzo, n.d., cited in Robertson and Zalenko, n.d.)

Just as virtual reality spawned out of research labs and academia, and possibly stayed alive through the 1990s bust largely thanks to its academic applications, the academic and research potential for virtual reality remains strong. “It’s naive to think this will be games only” analyst Michael Pachter states (in Statt, 2015). Already, virtual reality is proving a game changer in multiple industries, including architecture, healthcare, education, and defense (Lee and Stewart, n.d.).  

Developers, researchers, and academics are already going beyond the current trends of VR to create new technology to help with scientific research. Oliver Kreylos (n.d.) of the KeckCAVES project at the University of California, Davis, states that their goal is not to develop virtual reality “for its own sake” but as a tool to “do better science”, harkening back to Rheingold’s experiences with researchers in 1991 who even then were pioneering virtual reality.

Conclusion

So where is virtual reality, as a technology, having the largest impact?

As discussed, even with the positive attention that virtual reality entertainment is receiving from consumers, the technology is still not meeting the expectations of the majority of gamers, either in quality or price. Jaron Lanier (in Robertson and Zalenko, n.d.) goes so far as to directly compare the state of today’s virtual reality leaders with that of his own ambitions in the 1990s. VR remains a niche, for now (Lee and Stewart, n.d.).

However, that does not mean that the industry is dead in the water. On the contrary, many companies today continue to utilise virtual reality advancements, in many different industries.

All of this is perhaps made possible because of virtual reality’s potential in science. Just as VR continued to develop to its current state on the back of research grants through the late 90s and 2000s (Fisher, n.d., in Robertson and Zalenko, n.d.), virtual reality continues to progress as a scientific tool before an entertainment medium. “It’s a medium for progress, not the progress itself” one author writes (Schipper, n.d.).

Perhaps then while it is entertainment and gaming that continues to attract the most attention for virtual reality from consumers, its continued inability to reach high expectations, to “complete the illusion” (Lee and Stewart, n.d.) may only be resolved as a consequence of advancements for other purposes. Gaming is not the field where virtual reality is most impactful, it is a consequence of development that is impacting science, academia, and research much more heavily.

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