Inventors and scientists have been developing virtual reality (VR) concepts for around a century.
One of the earliest machines was the Sensorama, created by Morton Heilig.
He began working on the machine in the 1950s, but it wasn’t made public until 1962.
The Sensorama was nothing like the virtual reality we know today though.
It was a mechanic contraption the stimulated most of the main human senses: sight, sound, smell, and touch.
It has been programmed to simulate a ride around New York City on a motorcycle, using a fan to simulate the change in airflow, chemicals to recreate the smells of pizza and fumes from engines, and a moving chair to simulate the direction changes of the bike.
While it certainly didn’t feature the graphics of modern virtual reality headset, it did include stereoscopic 3D images, similar to VR today.
Through the rest of the 20th century, other teams of researchers and private companies continued to develop new virtual reality concepts.
None were practical for real-world use though. In fact, one was so big it had to be suspended from a ceiling and the user strapped into it.
The Virtual Boy was one of the first consumer products that promised virtual reality gaming.
Like the other attempts though, it didn’t catch on, and Nintendo quickly discontinued the product. It lasted five months in Japan and six in North America before being removed from the shelves.
The Virtual Boy failed because it was ahead of its time. It used a poor implementation of immature technology, was impractical, and, due to company politics, was released before it had been fully developed.
Instead of the full-colour 3D graphics that were becoming the norm at the time, the Virtual boy used a red monochrome system of graphics with characters drawn only in wireframe.
The headset didn’t change what was shown on screen as the user moved their head, and it had to be placed on a table, with a stand holding it to the user’s head height.
It would be 15 years before other companies tried again with virtual reality technology.
The Current Virtual Reality Headsets
Virtual reality became viable in the 2010s as Oculus launched a crowdfunding campaign for its first headset.
It took several years before the product actually made it to market, but it was quickly followed by devices from Sony, HTC, and Samsung.
These virtual reality headsets finally had enough computing power to deliver photo-realistic graphics and frame rates that were fast enough to offer a quality experience.
Before this, poor graphics would have given it a cheap feel and slow frame rates would have made the user feel nauseous.
There were still several issues though. For example, headsets typically required a computer with a powerful graphics card to run most virtual reality games.
Some could connect to a smartphone instead, but with limited functionality.
They also typically had several cables attached, creating a rather clunky experience that didn’t appeal to the majority of consumers.
This has been improving as later versions have been released, with wireless and standalone VR headsets now available.
The Current Virtual Reality Games
There are plenty of virtual reality games now available to buy, including VR-only titles like RC Flight Simulator for Steam and Job Simulator for PlayStation VR.
While the flight simulator genre is well established, many others represent novel concepts with little scope to grow and develop.
There are also some games that have “VR Support”, meaning they can be played without a headset, but have extra functionality if you take VR for a ride.
For example, several racing games including iRacing and Gran Turismo Sport and Wipeout Omega Collection let you play the game from a driver’s perspective.
This makes it possible to look out the side windows by turning your head in the right direction.
We are even seeing some larger online casinos and poker brands begin to develop virtual reality versions of their most popular games.
However, there hasn’t been widespread adoption of the technology in iGaming.
Instead, many brands continue to focus on live casino action where a real-life dealer takes control of the game, and players watch on via a live-streamed video.
Many casinos, like Virgin Games, continue to rely on welcome bonuses to compete for new customers instead of harnessing the power of virtual reality.
Fad or Future?
At present, it’s not yet clear whether virtual reality will be adopted more widely by the gaming community in the coming years.
The current PlayStation VR hardware that’s compatible with the PlayStation 4 still feels like a novelty add-on, much like the EyeToy for the PlayStation 2.
It’s the next-generation console, PS5 expected to launch within the next year, that’s believed to feature improved virtual reality support, integrating into more and better games.
It’s difficult to see how virtual reality can win over the masses, which will be crucial to its long term survival.
At present, it remains a niche product. As of December 2019, the three leading manufacturers of VR headsets: Sony, Oculus, and HTC had sold a combined total of 7.8 million units.
This may appear impressive at first glance until you compare it with the 110 million PlayStation 4 consoles and 2.2 billion iPhones sold.
It looks even worse when you compare it to the sales figures of the Virtual Boy.
Nintendo sold a total of 770,000 units in the space of around six months, while Oculus only managed just twice that in five years.
When you look at the numbers, it seems difficult to see how much further virtual reality can go.
Especially when you consider that Google Glass and 3D televisions were commercial failures because consumers don’t particularly enjoy wearing clunky head-wear to interact with technology.
If the hardware and associated ecosystems remain profitable within the small market of enthusiasts, then we may see virtual reality gaming stick around.
However, if it can’t reach a critical mass of consumers or turn a big enough profit from enthusiasts, then virtual reality gaming may not make a big splash in the next decade.
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