VR Gaming: Past, Present, And Future
Virtual Reality or VR has been considered the next big thing since at least 2014, but tech companies are still trying to figure out how to make VR the kind of technology that people can’t live without. While the gaming industry continues to think up exciting ways to incorporate VR into games, clunky headsets, a lack of content, and not as much consumer interest as anticipated has caused VR progress to stall.
That’s not to say that all is lost though. The gaming industry remains committed to making positive strides when it comes to VR, even if there are still several things holding VR gaming back today.
“The good news is that, in technical terms, today’s V.R. systems are miles ahead of their predecessors. Many newer systems feature realistic graphics and motion capture, and there are some genuinely great games and entertainment apps out there,” according to The New York Times. “The bad news is that V.R. is still not what sci-fi movies taught us to hope for – a fully immersive experience that transports us to another dimension and gives us all kinds of virtual superpowers. Even the leading systems still lack some basic features and, outside of gaming, there isn’t much you can do on a V.R. headset that you can’t do more easily on another device.”
To better understand how we have gotten to where we’re at now with VR gaming, let’s take a closer look at VR’s past, as well as what we should expect to see in the future when it comes to VR gaming.
Jaron Lanier, a computer scientist, researcher, and author, coined the term virtual reality in the 1980s. VR is defined as “the use of computer modeling and simulation that enables a person to interact with an artificial three-dimensional (3-D) visual or other sensory environment,” according to Britannica. As the founder of the first company to sell VR products, Lanier brought VR into the grasp of the general public. He also led teams that originated VR applications for medicine, design, and many other fields.
While Lanier was the first to come up with the term virtual reality, he wasn’t the first to come up with VR as a concept. In 1935, Stanley Weinbaum wrote a science fiction story, Pygmalion’s Spectacles, in which the story’s main character wears a pair of goggles that transport him to a fictional world, which stimulates his senses and features holographic recordings. This is considered to be the origin of VR as a concept since the story was a good prediction of the aims and achievements of the future.
However, the first VR technical developments date back to the 1830s when Sir Charles Wheatstone described stereopsis in 1838. Stereopsis is a term that’s used to refer to the perception of depth and 3-dimensional structure obtained on the basis of visual information deriving from two eyes by people with normally developed binocular vision, which is a type of vision in which an animal has two eyes capable of facing the same direction to perceive a single three-dimensional image of its surroundings. Wheatstone’s research led him to create the earliest type of stereoscope, which used a pair of mirrors at 45-degree angles to the user’s eye, each reflecting a picture that was located off to the side.
In 1939, Fred Waller and Ralph Walker invented the Cinerama (originally called the Vitarama) widescreen film format for the 1939 New York World’s Fair. The Vitarama process used multiple cameras and projectors and an arc-shaped screen to create the illusion of immersion in the space perceived by a viewer. The Vitarama didn’t become a commercial success until the mid-1950s, when it was called Cinerama. The Army Air Corps used the system for anti-aircraft training during World War II under the name Waller Flexible Gunnery Trainer.
After the release of the promotional film This Is Cinerama in 1952, cinematographer Morton Heilig became fascinated with Cinerama and 3D movies. In 1956, Heilig created the Sensorama, which is credited as the first VR machine. The Sensorama was a large booth that combined multiple technologies to stimulate all of the senses – there was a combined full color 3D video, audio, vibrations, smell, and atmospheric effects like wind. The large booth could fit up to four people at a time. Heilig patented the Sensorama in 1962, and also patented the Telesphere Mask in 1960, which was the first head-mounted display (HMD). The Telesphere Mask provided 3D images with wide vision and stereo sound.
The first motion tracking HMD was created in 1961 by Comeau and Bryan and called Headsight. It had built-in video screens for each eye and a head-tracking system. Headsight wasn’t used for virtual reality at the time, but rather it was developed to allow the military to remotely look at hazardous situations. A remote camera was used to imitate the head movements so the users could look around the setting.
Technical developments that would lay the groundwork for VR continued in 1965 with Ivan Sutherland’s vision of the Ultimate Display, which was a virtual world viewed through a HMD that replicated reality so well that the user was unable to differentiate it from actual reality. In 1966, military engineer Thomas Furness created the first flight simulator for the Air Force. Sutherland and his student Bob Sproull created the first virtual reality HMD in 1968, which they called The Sword of Damocles. It featured a head-mount connected to a computer rather than a camera. Then in 1969, computer artist Myron Krueger developed ‘artificial reality’ experiences using computers and video systems.
The 1970s also saw more technical developments with General Electric Corporation building a computerized flight simulator that featured a 180-degree field of vision using three screens surrounding the cockpit (1972), Kruger’s VIDEOPLACE, the first interactive VR platform, which was displayed at the Milwaukee Art Center (1975), and MIT created the Aspen Movie Map in 1977, which was a program that allowed users to virtually wander through Aspen, Colorado. The VITAL helmet from the McDonnell-Douglas Corporation integrated VR into its HMD for military use in 1979. A head tracker in the HMD followed the pilot’s eye movements to match computer generated-images.
In the 1980s, stereo vision glasses were created by StereoGraphics (1980), Sayre gloves, which were the first wired gloves, were invented (1982), and Jaron Lanier and Thomas Zimmerman founded VPL Research, Inc. (1985), which was the first company to sell VR goggles and gloves. Furness developed a flight simulator between 1986-1989 that featured computer-generated 3D maps and advanced infrared and radar imagery that allowed the pilot to see and hear in real-time, Lanier popularized the term virtual reality while at VPL Research in 1987, and Scott Foster founded Crystal River Engineering (1989), which was able to develop real-time binaural 3D processing for a VR training simulator for astronauts. Mattel, Inc. also released the Power Glove, which was a controller accessory for the Nintendo Entertainment System.
A VR arcade machine, Virtuality, exhibited at the Computer Graphics exhibition in London in 1990, and was launched in 1991 allowing gamers to play in a 3D gaming world. Also in 1991, a Virtuality pod featured VR headsets and real-time stereoscopic 3D images, and Sega announced that they were working on the SEGA VR headset, even though it was never released. In 1994, Sega did release a motion simulator arcade machine, and Nintendo launched the Virtual Boy console in 1995, which was the first portable console to display 3D graphics. Georgia Tech and Emory University researchers used VR to create war zone scenarios for veterans who were receiving exposure therapy for PTSD.
In the 2000s, SAS Cube became the first PC based cubic room (2001), Google introduced Street View (2007) and a stereoscopic 3D mode for Street View (2010), and Luckey launched a Kickstarter campaign for the Oculus Rift (2012), which raised over two million dollars.
VR gained a lot of momentum after Facebook bought the Oculus VR company in 2014 for two billion dollars. Then in 2015, more VR possibilities started to become available to the general public. By 2016, hundreds of companies were developing VR products with lots of improvements and gains in 2017 and 2018.
A 2019 Forbes article, “2019: The Year Virtual Reality Gets Real” declared, “Virtual reality has come a long way in a short time, and it’s advancing at a rapid rate.” However, the article also did mention that 2018 was a challenging year for VR with its growth slowed substantially compared to 2017.
In 2020, a WBUR article “A Strange New World: Has Virtual Reality Gaming Lived Up To Its Promise?” questioned whether VR gaming has accomplished what it set out to achieve. “2020 is once again being declared to be VR’s make-or-break year,” says Robert Morgan, a VR games and experiences creator, in the WBUR article. “Now, people have been saying that since roughly 2014.”
So, where does that put VR today in 2021?
“VR may not have completely revolutionized the gaming industry, or forever changed the way we interact with each other, watch movies and TV, conduct meetings, do our jobs, or any of the other over-the-top predictions that arrived when VR tried to go mainstream in the early-to-mid 2010s,” according to a PC Gamer “The State of VR in 2021” article. “The hype, as often happens with hype, didn’t match reality (virtual or otherwise). If anything, we’re still probably a decade away from VR being truly affordable and convenient enough to be a mass-market item rather than a fairly niche interest.”
Now, the question is: What should we expect from VR gaming in the future?
Some of the most impressive VR games ever made were released in 2020. So, the future of VR gaming appears bright, even if it’s going to take a little longer for VR to reach its golden age.
“We’re still waiting for the big breakthrough that will convince the majority of gamers to get a VR headset,” according to PC Gamer. “And that breakthrough most likely isn’t going to come in 2021, or 2022, or even in the next several years. It’s not just the hunt for a killer app: cost, comfort, and convenience are the biggest hurdles for VR that keep it out of the mainstream, and while the technology is making steps in that direction, it hasn’t yet made that one giant leap.” While there are many non-gaming-related applications of VR technology, analysts predict that gaming will be the biggest driver of revenue growth, with recent estimates of global gaming-related VR revenue projecting totals of nearly $50 billion or more by 2026 or 2027.