Keynote Remixed: What Happened to Virtual Reality

This is part of a series of blog posts discussing themes raised in Prof. Mark Bolas’ keynote at ISMAR 2011.

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.

Cinema and television fueled and was fueled by this virtual reality hype. Notable visions of this future included:

Sometime by the end of the 1990’s to mid-2000’s, this hype had largely collapsed. The news media covered VR less and less. In academia, many VR researchers and labs moved on to other topics.

What happened to VR? Where did it go?

Public interest in virtual reality waned for a number of reasons.

My first Ph.D. advisor, Prof. Larry Hodges used to comment that he was glad that the Internet and World Wide Web came along in the late 90’s. All the celebrities, reporters, and hype went there, leaving virtual reality researchers like him the time and space to get back to work. Folks like Timothy Leary were a prime example of this exodus. Leary, coming from advocating psychadelic drugs in the 60’s and 70’s, found virtual reality in the 90’s, but moved on to the web. So certainly, some of the hype and attention simply migrated to the Internet.

Another issue is that the hype surrounding virtual reality created impossible to fulfill promises. This is a common phenomenon, noted in the Gartner Hype Curve.

Hype Cycle Diagram drawn by Jeremy Kemp

The Gartner Hype Curve communicates that there are “technology triggers” that lead to new opportunities and possibilities. Early adopters, like researchers, are drawn to such new fertile ground. Creative people imagine the possibilities before all the caveats and issues are discovered and worked out. Reporters share how this might change the lives of everyday people. Entrepreneurs begin to promote the technology and create start-ups. This all leads to growing anticipation resulting in a climb to the “peak of inflated expectations.” This was VR in the 1990’s.

When issues like technology limitations, costs, and other issues begin to deflate those inflated expectations, there is a slide down to the “trough of disillusionment.” This is where public sentiment has been towards VR for the past several years.

I reflexively dislike hype that inflates expectations into irrational exuberance. Hype inevitably collapses and seems to leave a “bad taste in the mouth” for that technology. However, I should perhaps reconsider that dislike. As Mark points out, hype isn’t “wrong” or “bad.” His colleague at the USC Interactive Media Department, Anne Balsamo, notes that hype is the public trying to figure out a way to engage with a technology. I guess we were just imagining all the ways in which this technology might improve us, change us, or have meaning for us.

The public did find a way to engage with virtual reality. However, it wasn’t through virtual reality googles, gloves, and motion capture suits.

Games ate VR.

VR technologies were subsumed into games. Games are experiences that test us and reward us for perseverance, gaining skills, and figuring out how the game world works. Game developers figured out which pieces of VR technology were needed to create engaging experiences.

  • Beautifully detailed game worlds and the 3D graphics technology that realize them were born out of the graphic pipelines built in the early days of virtual reality and scientific visualization.
  • Experiments with networked virtual worlds paved the way for the vast numbers of game players in World of Warcraft, Eve Online, and Second Life.
  • Early motion capture and body tracking systems were boiled down to yield devices like the Nintendo Wiimote, the Sony Playstation Move, and the Microsoft Kinect.

Second Harvest

If we glance back again at the Gartner hype curve, we can see something beyond the “trough of disillusionment.” It is the “slope of enlightenment” that leads to a “plateau of productivity.”

Mark Bolas calls this the “Second Harvest.” All those positive and negative lessons of the last few decades will come together to bear new fruit. We can revisit many old ideas in virtual reality, and we can start to deliver on some old promises. Why? We now have new and better technologies and a more mature perspective. We have fast 3D graphics chipsets in all of our smartphone mobile devices. Our smartphones have bright and crisp high resolution displays, near ubiquitous wireless data networks, and global positioning systems. In fact, our lab has been revisiting head mounted displays and re-inventing them with smartphone technologies (see here and here).

Furthermore, societies around the world are far more comfortable with the idea of virtuality than they were back in the 1990’s. Most everyone can text, use the Internet, watch digital movies, play online games, and friend people on a social network. It is amazing to note both the existence and importance of 3D artists in our society today. These are people, often in the movie and game industries, who make entire careers out of creating 3D virtual objects and environments. They build things that will never properly exist (at least materially), but are enjoyed by millions of people. Sounds like our societies are more ready to engage with VR than they ever were.

It is time to dust off the old VR research portfolio and take virtual reality to the next step.