Whatever Happened To Virtual Reality?
Remember that scene in the movie ‘Tron’, where the little bikes were zipping about in a race to the death, leaving lines behind them that caused a bike to explode if it ran into it? And remember how everybody thought it’d be cool to take part in something like that, if the technology allowed it? That technology was VR, or Virtual Reality, and in the early 1990’s, it was THE buzzword everywhere you looked.
Born from the desire to interact within a real-life living world that was completely computer-generated, VR was meant to be the next big thing in home and entertainment technology. Whether it was to be used as a method of taking part in your favorite videogames, or racing a car at the Indy 500, here was a way that your wildest dreams could come true, without ever leaving your home.
Yet almost 20 years later, and we’re really no further forward with virtual reality or the experiences it could bring us. So whatever happened to virtual reality, and where do we stand now?
A Leap Too Far
Although the idea behind virtual reality was exciting, the actual reality – no pun intended – was far more complicated. The software needed to allow you to envisage a fully three-dimensional world was not only expensive, but also incredibly difficult to run properly. Since your eyes had to be fooled into thinking that you were in a 3-D world, you needed to wear a headset that projected images all around you.
This allowed you the freedom to move around, and the sensors that were inside the helmet moved the software with you. A simple example would be that you’re in the cockpit of a racing car – your headset is hooked up to a computer or video console that tracks the movement of all the cars, track and stadium around your car. If you turn your head to the right, whatever would be passing your car at that time is transmitted to your helmet, so it would look like you’re passing a rival car, or part of the stadium. Simple, yet highly effective.
Unfortunately, to get the required technology to work, the helmet had to be pretty bulky and heavy, and this caused neck strain and a lot of headaches on users of the early VR technology. Add to that the huge costs involved, and VR was never going to be a viable project for the home for a long time. Even the immensely popular Japanese videogame giant Nintendo couldn’t bring the technology into the home, and its Virtual Boy console suck without a trace.
Virtual Technology Today
With costs and the technology available at the time scuppering VR before it really even got off the ground, many believe that it has now passed into the history books. However, virtual reality is making a comeback, though perhaps not in the ways imagined.
NASA are using the core technology for its robots to be controlled by human users on its Mars probes, and a University in British Columbia in Canada has come up with technology that allows you to be suspended in a harness and use a head-mounted display to “virtually swim” in the ocean. Even the new Nintendo Wii offers some form of virtual technology, with its ability to use its controller as a fishing rod, or baseball bat, or golf club.
With technology advancing so quickly, and costs coming down, perhaps it won’t be too long until we’re sitting on these bikes in ‘Tron’, ready for our own death-or-glory race. Without the death, of course…