If the nausea doesn't get you, the poor-fitting glasses will
I've watched virtual reality technology for 25 years. The earliest encounters were fictional, such as in the writings of Bruce Stirling. While I was at CADalyst magazine, we did a cover story on the VR developed by Autodesk using technology from VPL.
I got to try Cyberspace for myself during an AEC Systems show of the early 1990s. I donned a heavy headset that made me look like Alien, with the thick cables connecting to an extremely powerful PC. It worked, but barely. Due to the computational load, the scene was of simple geometric shapes (a maximum of 35KB of DXF data from a 386 computer) through which I navigated. VR was proven but not practical. Autodesk soon divested itself of the division after failing to make sufficient progress. The dream of architects walking through their AutoCAD-designed models would have to wait a few more decades.
A side effect was the development of VRML [virtual reality modeling language] in the mid-1990s, the ASCII-based file format meant to define 3D geometry, the materials that covered them, and even 3D sounds. Some impressive models were created and available online, such as of SOMA (south of Market avenue in San Francisco). I thought VRML might represent the future of CAD on the Internet and even dedicated a print newsletter to the topic (CAD++VRML), but within a couple of years I realized its limitations: the developers were not interested in CAD but in entertainment. It didn't help that Microsoft attempted to monopolize VRML during discussions of the next-gen VRML V2 format by proposing a binary format.
Which brings us to today. Ever since Oculus revived the niche, VR is seen as the Next Great Hope after the failure of 3D tv for a mature technology industry looking for a new spike in profits. VR requires the purchase of powerful computers, new hardware accessories, new software, new viewing systems, and so on.
Last week I had the chance to try a consumer-grade VR system. It is based on a brand-new smartphone from a major manufacturer. It comes with goggles and a slim hand-held camera for taking 180- or 360-degree still photos and movies. The goggles connect via a proprietary port, while the camera communicates through Bluetooth.
The compact system is meant for portability, so we could take it hiking, to the fair grounds, and on family events. Recording VR photos and videos is straight forward, as the camera has just three options: 180 or 360, still or movie, start-stop recording.
Inside the goggles, the user interface is traditional for VR, where we move our head to move a green dot to select a scene to view, and then tap the screen of the smartphone to start the video. A subtle button on the goggles lets us escape from a video early.
It's the viewing that's the problem. The goggles are lightweight, looking like a pair of glasses but with a wide gray bar where the tiny monitors reside. Despite being lightweight, the glasses are uncomfortable to wear as they are designed to be one-size fits all, and so cut into the nose and ears.
The image we see is low-res and suffers from astigmatism, where reds and greens bleed. Because we have to discard your glasses to wear these ones, our un-aided eyes cannot view the image properly. We were six in the group trying the new technology, and two complained of nausea within minutes. One friend suggested VR might become popular with gamers, while another disagreed.
It was a fun distraction for a few minutes on a hot summer evening. But we found that VR technology ultimately is isolating. It requires that extra stuff be set up, which goes against the current Jobsian-inspired ethos of greater simplicity.
Just as 3D tv failed, so too will consumer VR.