Is Virtual Reality Finally Becoming Mainstream?

Virtual Reality (VR) was once a pipe dream. Something that seemed impossible outside of science fiction. The closest thing to VR that we could find was typically found in big budget arcades in the form of on-rail shooters or racing games. There have been advancements in VR, such as vehicles moving while you turn, rumble, and surround sound to help with the immersion. However, VR for home use has seemed out of reach until recently - with the rise of mobile headsets and more mainstream and powerful setups like the HTC Vive, PlayStation VR, and the Oculus Rift.

Full-featured VR gear started to surface in 2016 with the releases of the PC-based Oculus Rift, the HTC Vive and PlayStation VR releasing after in the same year. At launch, the HTC Vive was $799 USD, the Oculus Rift $599, and the PlayStation VR $399. These are high costs for something that was very unknown in the home space for a long time. Additionally, you needed a high-quality PC or a PS4/PS4 Pro, which turned a $399-$799 investment into one that can creep up to nearly $1600 if you are building a brand-new PC. However, people have pioneered the software and the support followed, slowly but surely. Today, all three platforms have dropped in price, with the PlayStation VR now sitting at $299. Additionally, the platforms have experienced ergonomic iterations or bundles that have enticed new consumers of the products. At this point, full featured VR is becoming more accessible to the not so tech savvy consumer while the quality of experiences increases.

Even if you can’t afford the high-end home VR kits, smartphones allow for another point of entry into VR. By placing a phone into a headset, users can enjoy small experiences with their heads being the only thing needed to move. In some instances, like Google’s Daydream VR, users can have a basic controller for menu navigation and for use in select games. These experiences are untethered in that there is no external power supply necessary to attach to these kinds of headsets, but they tax the phone’s battery, draining it in minutes compared to casual use. Also, some people are likely opposed to the mandatory use of the phone on the simple fact our phones have become a crucial piece of our lives. Despite this, they provide the lowest point of entry because they offer options to view images and video in 360° in and out of a VR headset.

With the experiences becoming abundant, VR is entering a market much like handheld gaming has for years: a subset of video games media. VR is hitting a stride with sales exceeding expectations and titles like Moss and Superhot being heavily praised. Bethesda Game Studios has brought their popular titles Fallout 4 and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim to VR, which shows the capabilities of VR supporting full length games. With these titles available, it should be no surprise to see a brand-new title complete with in-depth mechanics to debut at the upcoming Electronic Entertainment Expo. While there are some barriers that can deter new users from purchasing the product, spotting a VR headset in a home should not be as foreign as it once was two years ago.

VR is slowly making its way to commonplace among casual users. With headsets utilizing smartphones available and the full-featured rigs coming down in price, it’s a matter of time before headsets are much more common like a laptop to a student. VR, and likewise mixed reality, is seeing other applications for design projects such as transposing concept design into the real world on an interstate or showcasing a building in a virtual tour. Perhaps there is an opportunity to break any stereotypes with whom the typical user may be as well, much like Ready Player One was able to showcase with the Oasis. It is niche within the subculture of video games, but it is not something that only the wealthy are able to experience anymore. This is evidenced by the rise of VR arcades, venues dedicated to VR experiences. In my local area, two VR arcades are opened up, providing the space for people to simply try out VR without the risk of having a makeshift setup in their home and losing hundreds of dollars in the process.

The technology is slowly make breakthroughs and making a case in other markets beyond entertainment. There are practical uses for creating simulations for on the job training and virtual tourism, whether that is a building, a city, or maybe even the human body. As the technology supporting VR - the tracking, ergonomics, and freedom of the equipment - improves, so do the opportunities. What we know for VR today will be vastly different 10 years from now.