A new era for virtual reality?

Senior Web Developer Lawrie Cape discusses the latest technological breakthroughs in the world of virtual reality and the implications for internet content.

Virtual reality. For many, the words conjure up visions of clunky headsets and luminous coloured, headache inducing, primitive 3D shapes. But we are allegedly on the cusp of a VR revolution.

Technology has caught up with the ambitions of the early experiments with virtual reality, with modern hardware and software finally being capable of transporting users into virtual worlds, without causing nausea or neck ache from weighty headsets.

Three virtual reality headsets are due to launch in the next 6 months, from three big players in the technology industry - Facebook's Oculus Rift, HTC & Valve's Vive and Sony's Playstation VR. One big question, is how many people are actually going to pay for a headset to experience these new virtual worlds? From Laserdiscs and Apple's Newton, to Microsoft's Kinect and 3D televisions, there's a slew of gadgets that were touted to change the way we interact with technology, but that never caught on. So will VR be different, or will it be another failed technology soon to be on the scrapheap?

The big players seem to believe in it, and are putting their money behind it. Facebook bought Oculus, the company behind the Oculus Rift headset, for 2 billion dollars, and HTC claimed that "VR is more important" to them than their current mobile phone business. Deutsche Bank, the global banking and financial services company, have predicted that 2016 will be the year that VR becomes widely adopted, and has estimated that the industry will be worth $7 billion by 2020.

But what actually is virtual reality? At its core, it's a screen directly in front of your eyes, which matches the movements of your head, giving the impression of you actually being within a 3D scene, as opposed to viewing it through a fixed window, as say, a television allows. Proponents say it gives an incredible, and previously unexperienced sense of presence, depth, scale and immersion, all of which open the doors for new and creative experiences.

An obvious application is for video games, and this is indeed an area which is being explored. Valve, the company working with HTC on the Vive headset, run the incredibly popular Steam digital distribution platform for PC games and the Playstation VR system is being launched to run on Sony's Playstation 4 console, so we can expect to see a range of popular games being launched with VR in the coming months.

Another area which is being explored is film, with directors keen to explore the new creative possibilities it offers. The 2016 Sundance film festival for example, had over 20 virtual reality based films and experiences. There are even production studios which have been established specifically to explore this new medium. One notable example is Vrse.Works, whose award winning 3d films include the UN funded “Clouds Over Sidra”, which follows a twelve year old Syrian refugee in the Za’atari camp in Jordan.

The use of VR puts the viewer front and centre in the events. As Scott Stein has said, "the power of virtual reality filmmaking, if it's anything like what Clouds Over Sidra demonstrates, is utterly overwhelming. It's not just about gaining perspective, but the beginnings of true telepresence. [...] To feel like you're in a place where you really aren't, but share the emotions and connections...yes, it's magic, and ghostly, and unreal. And I'm not even sure what it fully means yet."

But how does all of this affect the web? Where desktop apps and games go today, the web follows tomorrow. Following its popularity with film makers, YouTube now supports 3D videos, both in its mobile apps and in browsers. And as mobile devices get more powerful, and contain multiple complex sensors, they can start to do some of the heavy lifting required by VR. Google's Cardboard for example, is a bare-bones virtual reality headset made from folded cardboard and a mobile phone. It can run dedicated apps, or even web sites as immersive 3D experiences, and has been the first taste of VR for many users, with over 1 million sold to date.

Brands have already begun making use of these new technologies for digital marketing campaigns, with various approaches, ranging from 360 videos on YouTube, dedicated desktop programs, mobile applications and standalone websites. Notable examples come from high profile brands, such as Volvo, Castrol and Stella Artois.

Looking further to the future, Mozilla, the company behind Firefox, are working on project called MozVR to "help bring high performance virtual reality to the open web" and A-Frame, "an open source framework for easily creating WebVR experiences with HTML" - aiming to make the creation of virtual reality experiences on the web as easy and accessible as writing HTML.

Is this the direction gaming, film and even the internet is heading? In five years, will VR headsets be a common sight in the home and office? It's hard to say, but some of the world's largest companies are betting on VR being more than just a novelty. The technology is right around the corner, but will the content be engaging enough to balance the costs?

By Lawrie Cape, Senior Web Developer