Why virtual reality could finally mend its broken promise

30 years on, virtual reality is experiencing another hopeful wave. Here's why this is the right time for VR, and how it can avoid floundering. Again.


It was Summer CES 1993, and MTV VJ Alan Hunter, wearing a visually offensive button-up, was doing his best to intone the gravity of what video game maker Sega intended to unleash on the public.

The product was a head mounted display (HMD) with dual LCD screens and stereo headphones that would put the user in the middle of his video game.

The promo video showed teenage boys, controllers in hand, minds in the these virtual worlds, breathlessly dispensing scripted commentary like "I put it on and soon I'm deep in a world of fast-paced action!" and "It's like being there! You're in control of the universe!" They ducked and swerved — the future was coming at them so fast!

Toward the end of the video, one of the actors said, with an enthusiasm typically absent from teenage boys, "I thought I'd have to wait until I was old, like 30, to get VR at home."

What a little jinx.

That kid is probably pushing 50 now, and VR is still not available at home.

The "promise" of virtual reality, a phrase frequently used by those for whom that promise was broken, goes as far back as the 1960s when pioneers like Mort Heilig and Ivan Sutherland started thinking about immersiveness, augmented, and virtual environments.

The 80s and 90s saw swelling hopes that the technology known as virtual reality was poised to sweep humanity and change everything.

But it didn't.

There's a graveyard of virtual reality projects that have fizzled, failed, and flopped at various stages of existence. Some never made it off the patent page, like Heilig's 1960 Telesphere Mask. Others got further — if you're of a certain age, you might have owned a Nintendo Virtual Boy for the brief time it was projecting its red and black display onto young retinas. Then, of course, there's Sega VR, which never made it to market.

Still image from Sega VR promotional video

In the early 90s, there was even the presciently-named EyePhone, the brainchild of VR entrepreneur Jaron Lanier.

"It's essentially a scuba mask with a bunch of electronics in it," said Gartner analyst Brian Blau. Blau worked in the VR industry in the 90s and had the occasion to try out the EyePhone.

The EyePhone was an HMD, coupled with a data glove, that looked not so different from the Oculus Rift. In fact, Blau said, it was basically the Oculus Rift of its time, hype included.

The mask strapped to the user's face, much like is common now, and came separate from the head tracker, which came separate from the computer required to set the whole rig up.

All of that, according to Blau, could easily break the $300,000 mark, and coast on toward $500,000.

"It was the most hyped device at the time. It was the one that you saw everywhere, and this flamboyant guy Jaron Lanier [among others], were the ones going around the globe telling people that this was the kind of technology that was going to transform how you interact with people and computers," Blau said. It's still the device of the era that's most prominent in his mind.

You can find vintage clips on YouTube of Lanier making his pitch: "The idea is that by wearing computerized clothing over your sense organs, you transport your sensory system into a reality that can be of any description."

Given the times, Blau said that several of the apps that existed which used the EyePhone were good, maybe even some of the best. Still, by the mid 90s, the EyePhone and VPL Research, the company that made it, were gone.

Dead and buried

If the story of virtual reality ever gets adapted into a movie, there would be a fade to black, right about here, followed by white, sans serif text denoting September, 5, 2012 — the day Oculus closed its Kickstarter campaign after raising more than $2 million dollars, which was almost 1000% of its original goal.

Clearly, there's the VR industry before and after Oculus. By March 2014, Facebook bought it, inspiring lots of jokes about an immersive newsfeed — cat videos on a whole new plane.

The following year at Facebook's F8 Developer Conference in San Francisco, California, the day-two keynote covered the future of virtual reality for Facebook, delivered by Oculus' chief scientist Michael Abrash.

Oculus would have you believe the past two years have been an exhumation for VR. Abrash went as far as to say that "VR was dead and buried."

The slightly less dramatic framing of the story is that Oculus' explosive Kickstarter, followed by its $2 billion purchase was a moment of renewal. Enough has changed and evolved to give many in tech reason to believe that virtual reality is about to arrive, finally.

"The folks who are just entering the field and are excited by the Oculus and the related technology product development are mistaken in thinking that what they're doing is new."
Linda Jacobson

The first and most obvious argument why, is that the technology is better.

In the 80s and 90s it was expensive, laggy, and took immense amounts of computing power to render.

Thirty years later, the human race can order Chili's To Go from the palm of its hand.

Whatsmore, VR hasn't been completely dormant.

"The folks who are just entering the field and are excited by the Oculus and the related technology product development are mistaken in thinking that what they're doing is new," said Linda Jacobson.

Jacobson is the author of Garage Virtual Reality, a 1994 book outlining the past, present, and future of VR. She was one of the founding contributing editors of Wired Magazine, and a former virtual reality evangelist for Silicon Graphics.

"What's new is this particular set of products at a new price point, as well as the availability of new people and new talent who are looking at it," she said.

During those seemingly quiet years for VR, car manufacturers started using it to design cars and test user experience. Scientists and doctors figured out how to study or treat everything from phantom limb pain to phobias and post traumatic stress disorder. The government, from NASA to the military, developed ways to incorporate VR into training exercises.

It's easy to think so, but there was never a day in the mid 90s when those in the VR industry just packed up and went home.

We'll meet again

For many—not all—of those who lived through the VR flameout of the 90s, there seems to be a persistent hollowness; this important technology should have happened on a much wider scale and didn't.

But those who are even just a bit younger, or slightly less jaded, are giving off a prodigious wave of energy. Karl Krantz can attest to that. He grew up in the 80s reading about Jaron Lanier.

"I totally became obsessed with this idea of this inevitable use of computers to create virtual worlds, and that just stuck with me through my whole life," he said.

Nashville VR Meetup attendee tests a Leap Motion sensor.
Image: Shawn Whiting

He spent most of his career working in telepresence, and then about 3 years ago, dropped everything and moved from New York to Silicon Valley on the gut feeling that VR's moment was coming.

When he arrived, he looked for a VR meetup group, figuring that of all places, there had to be one in Silicon Valley.

There was not. So, he started Silicon Valley Virtual Reality, or SVVR. For the first meeting, Krantz anticipated maybe 10 attendees. Seventy-two turned up, including Nate Mitchell, one of the founders of Oculus.

"It was immediately clear that there was this grassroots need," Krantz said.

The meetups, which take place once a month, are fairly free-form and attract both developers and enthusiasts. Developers bring their rigs to show off what they're working on, and others come to try out whatever's new. They give and get feedback, hash out project problems, network, and generally nerd out over virtual reality.

"There's really passionate people out there who just want virtual reality to happen. They're just drawn to this space," he said.

On one level, a gathering like a meetup is an entertaining way to learn about and try new VR, but it's also the burgeoning of what Krantz sees as a healthy ecosystem for people pushing the industry forward from the bottom up.

"It's cheap enough that now we have hundreds of thousands working on all of the problems of VR as opposed to a couple hundred well-funded research labs."
Karl Krantz

For a first anniversary, SVVR put on a conference and hosted about 30 exhibitors at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California. This year, the SVVR conference is booked into the San Jose Convention Center with around 100 exhibitors.

Two years in, SVVR isn't even the only VR meetup group in the Bay Area, let alone the rest of the world.

Jacobson recently co-founded the East Bay Virtual Reality Meetup group. There are at least 100 official Meetup.com groups for VR, everywhere from London to Dallas, and Bangalore to Dayton, Ohio.

The Melbourne Virtual Reality Meetup has about 400 members. MVRM's founder Stefan Pernar bought the original Oculus Rift Developer Kit 1 (DK1) in late 2013 and soon went about putting together MVRM. In 2014, he founded a company called Virtual Reality Ventures and uses the meetup to find potential clients and employees.

Part of what the VR meetup scene signifies is a major difference between the virtual reality community in the past and present.

Now, anyone with the desire and $350 can order an Oculus Rift DK2 and start tinkering, without battling prohibitive costs that limit access to the tech.

"It's cheap enough that now we have hundreds of thousands working on all of the problems of VR as opposed to a couple hundred well-funded research labs," Krantz said.

And because of websites like Meetup.com or even Reddit, it's easy to find and either physically or digitally gather people focused on VR.

In short, the movement has opened up.

Krantz said that at least in the Bay Area, you tend to run into the same folks going to the various VR meetups. They can't seem to get enough.

Virtual campfires

There's some irony in the fact that at the moment, physical presence coupled with social interaction is so vital to those in the VR community.

That need for presence also hints at one of the lingering questions about virtual reality: How will social interactions in VR work?

Shawn Whiting has a line on social interaction both about VR and actually in VR. He's the founder of the Nashville VR meetup group, and the co-founder of Convrge, a social VR app.

This screenshot is from the dance floor in Convrge. It's one of several meeting locations including a campfire, lounge, and cinema.
Image: Convrge

Currently, there's a smattering of social VR apps like Altspace, VRChat, and Riftmax. All riff on the idea of a digital space in virtual reality where people can meet up. These are the chatrooms of the 90s with souped up everything.

Convrge is only a few months old. When Whiting and co-creator Hayden Lee first started discussing creating something in virtual reality, Lee was living in Blacksburg, Virginia, where the pair originally met. (Lee and Whiting now live and work in an apartment in Nashville.) They mostly relied on Skype and Google Hangouts until something occurred to them:

"We were like, 'This is bullshit. If we're going to talk about what we're going to create, we should talk about it in VR,'" Whiting said.

Their first version was essentially a box floating in outer space. But, one night in December 2013, Whiting pulled up Spotify, hit play on the Lord of the Rings Extended Edition soundtrack and went to work designing a low polygon world in Unity inspired by LOTR and a longstanding love of camping in the woods and campfire conversations.

Some twelve hours later, Whiting had built Convrge.

To open Convrge is to materialize in front of a campfire as a cube-like avatar head, maybe Mario, Pikachu, or one of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

It's always gorgeous blue and purple saturated nighttime in Convrge. The fire crackles and the crickets chirp.

At this point, anyone who enters, whose name Whiting and Lee don't recognize, will get a greeting and quick rundown of the app's controls, as well as various points of interest to visit, which include a cinema for playing YouTube videos, a lounge, a dance floor, and a treehouse.

Convrge founders Shawn Whiting (left) and Hayden Lee
Photo courtesy of Shawn Whiting

For now, that's doable because there typically are not that many users logged in at once. Lee and Whiting take shifts on "community mode." The person on shift is the one with the plush "community kangaroo" sitting on his desk.

Whiting said that when they implemented the practice, they noticed users were more likely to return.

Even in a virtual setting — maybe especially — community drives participation and adoption.

In April, Convrge was featured on Oculus Share, which is essentially Oculus' app store. Since then, Convrge has been seeing growth week over week.

As I was talking to Whiting about it underneath the treehouse in Convrge, a guy with a Robotech VF-1 avatar who had been listening in, interjected and told Whiting that's exactly how he'd found Convrge.

VR enthusiasts and developers turn up as they do in real life to Thursday night meetups and other events Whiting and Lee orchestrate in Convrge.

As they would for Nashville VR, Whiting and Lee bring in speakers like Leap Motion's Isaac Cohen to talk about Leap for developers, or a panel from industry publication Road to VR.

It's remarkable access for people who might not ever make it out to an industry event in San Francisco, and access granted through virtual reality like never before.

A few minutes before Cohen was scheduled to talk on a Saturday afternoon, Whiting told the gathering crowd that Cohen was going to grab some coffee and then come in.

"Is he bringing some for us?" somebody jokingly asked Whiting.

"I'll just have him pour it into his keyboard."

"I think you need USB for that," Lee said.

Hang on to your hype

This could all still go wrong.

The preceding waves of excitement over VR show that unchecked hype did no favors for a technology that was, perhaps, decades ahead of its time—or that ran on the assumption that it was even fated to have a time at all.

Hope and hype each have some pretty dangerous deep ends.

VR has overcome weak tech, high costs, and closed off communities, but there are still plenty of questions to be answered.

For one, it's still unclear how regular consumers might use VR in their daily lives, if at all.

"There's a disconnect when a normal person says 'Ok, this is neat, what do I do with it?' And the VR person is like 'Anything! You can do anything! And everything!' It's hard to find this middle ground, to have a good conversation," Krantz said.

There are plenty of cool apps out there—you can stand outside the Louvre in Paris, or perch yourself on Paul McCartney's piano while he performs "Live and Let Die" amidst pyrotechnics—but those are one or two-time uses.

"There's a disconnect when a normal person says 'Ok, this is neat, what do I do with it?' And the VR person is like 'Anything! You can do anything! And everything!'"
Karl Krantz

Another persistent problem is motion sickness caused by laggy graphics. Everyone has a different threshold for what nauseates them. Blau, who's been doing demos for years and has a few reliable tricks to stave off sickness, still runs into VR experiences that make him ill.

High refresh rates and well-built experiences help minimize the risk, but it still hasn't been eliminated.

Video game maker Valve's president and co-founder Gabe Newell (Valve is working in conjunction with HTC on the upcoming Vive headset) told the New York Times in March that "zero percent of people get sick when they try the system."

The HTC Vive won't be out until the end of the year, so that remains to be seen, but he did emphasize the importance of minimizing motion sickness saying, "The fear is if a really bad VR product comes out, it could send the industry back to the 90s."

Think of it like this: If you visit a restaurant for the first time and walk out with a bad stomach ache, you're probably not going to go back. For newbies, a bout with nausea or dizziness could curtail future forays into VR.

That's why someone like Jason Latta, director of emerging technologies at digital marketing agency Power Creative, who is often in the position of introducing clients to VR, is careful about how he does it.

"The biggest mistake you can make with VR and someone new to VR is throw them on a rollercoaster... For some it's a thrill, and for others it's the beginning of a bad day," he said.

And while the technology is cheaper than it was, money could still create a barrier, albeit a lower one. It's not just the cost of the VR rig. Most of these devices require other hardware in order to run.

HTC Vive is powered by SteamVR, which could give it an advantage in content when it's released in Q4 2015.
Image: Sarah Tew/CNET

The Samsung Gear VR is only $200, but it has to be paired with the Samsung Galaxy Note 4 (or soon the Galaxy S6 or S6 Edge), which serves as the display and costs somewhere between $600-800.

As far as the Oculus Rift goes, there are no details as of yet as to the price tag on the consumer version slated for early 2016. It's also unknown if it'll be compatible with gaming consoles and which ones, or which other specific computers.

As of right now, the DK2 requires a computer, preferably a desktop, with a strong graphics card that can handle 3D video, 1080p, and 75fps, according to the Oculus website, and a whole lot of patience for issues with laptops or certain unsupported graphics cards.

Gamers are probably in the best position. They're more likely to already have all the hardware that plays nicely with the Rift. For non-gamers who are gadget geeks and want to give VR a shot? A MacBook Air or Surface Pro 3 isn't going to cut it. Their best bet is probably whatever shakes out at the lower end of consumer VR, which is probably going to be a smartphone-powered VR rig, Blau said.

For all these reasons, it's probably for the best that consumer-facing VR hasn't hit the market yet. There's a collective finger cross that late 2015 and early 2016 (which will also include the release of Sony's Project Morpheus) will have been enough time for the product to mature.

"We should not over-promise and over-hype and tell people this is going to change everything and change the world because we did that the first time and it burned us," Krantz said.

Beyond consumers

Outside of the consumer realm, it's easier to see VR establishing itself more firmly in industries like healthcare, education, tourism, real estate, and marketing, where the uses are more practical than fantastical.

Marketing in particular could end up having a big impact on the way many people might first encounter virtual reality through experiences like traveling installations or branded apps.

And for agencies, VR is already becoming a point of interest.

Latta's job at Power Creative is to find potential new platforms, the kinds clients will be asking about eventually.

Rothenberg Ventures' accelerator River focuses solely on VR startups.
Image: Rothenberg Ventures

"Some agencies got left behind with web and mobile. They did not adapt fast enough and have suffered because of it," he said. That means for agencies like Power Creative, there's a certain pressure to not only figure out what to do with the technology, but how to present it to potential clients.

The Innovation Lab at Power Creative in Louisville, Kentucky was built for that purpose. The outside wall is painted with a bright green and on the inside there's a lot that catches the eye, like a big orange couch, a touchscreen table, and a giant screen that wraps around the corners of the room. It's where Latta and his team are starting to pitch clients on integrating VR into their marketing plans. He sees VR as a significant chunk of what the agency will do in the future.

There's also the growing flock of young companies totally built around VR to consider. In San Francisco, venture capitalist Mike Rothenberg and his VC firm Rothenberg Ventures started an accelerator program called River which focuses only on virtual reality startups.

They made their first VR investment about 2 years ago. River's latest batch included 13 companies from the U.S., Canada, Argentina, Spain, Japan, South Korea, South Africa, and France, to name a few.

Several of the companies are, as would be expected, gaming studios like Thotwise and Reload Studios. Though, there's a spectrum within those 13 companies. Spain's Psious focuses on virtual reality in immersion therapy, as does DeepStream VR, which has been around for years—they make games to help relieve pain, like SnowWorld, which helps burn victims redirect attention while undergoing painful tasks like physical therapy and bandage changing. Emblematic group tackles immersive journalism using virtual reality.

"There aren't enough companies doing education or training, there aren't enough companies doing healthcare, or tourism—but there will be, and we hope to find them, invest in them, and support them," Rothenberg said.

They tend to look for companies that are "additive" in some regard, like Fove, which is developing eye tracking (versus head tracking) or companies that are producing content—after all, when users put on a headset, they've got to have something to do to keep them there.

It's a broad complement of companies touching various areas where VR needs to be strong.

River is trying to create as many opportunities, and as much awareness for these companies as possible. That means bringing together advisors and mentors, and organizing a demo day, as is fairly commonplace for tech accelerators. The last demo day took place at AT&T Park and brought in a few hundred people to try VR demos.

They're trying to make a bold statement to VR companies that there is significant interest on the venture capital front.

There are a few reasons Rothenberg feels good about virtual reality this time around. The obvious are lower cost, lower latency, and higher quality. He's also confident in the role mobile could play in adoption and awareness, figuring that if VR experiences are powered by the phones that many people already have, then it's a quick step over to a relatively cheap HMD accessory.

There's also the fact that large companies like Facebook, Samsung, HTC, Sony, and Microsoft (though the HoloLens is technically augmented reality) are all pursuing virtual reality.

For River's companies, the markers of success they're looking for are monetization, significant venture capital funding, or acquisition. Rothenberg knows they'll have to dig in for a while.

"The biggest mistake you can make with VR and someone new to VR is throw them on a rollercoaster."
Jason Latta

"We're not public market traders on quarterly earnings. We invest in companies, technologies, and people that we want to be in business with for a long time," he said.

"I think VR right now is still half awesome, half imagination," he said. "If you let your imagination take over, you can see where it's going to go. It is going there, but the point is rather that this is the beginning, not the middle or the end."

About 200 VR companies applied to the River accelerator and it'll be taking on a new group in the summer of 2015.

As more startups get off the ground and attract interest from investors, it's likely that there will be a shift from that grassroots feel Krantz described in the meetup scene to the more familiar structures and methods of the larger tech industry as we know it.

Much like the Homebrew Computer Club of the 80s, which drew people like Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak and other pioneers, the shelf life on VR meetup groups is probably limited, Pernar said. He sees the next year or two as still being important in the scope of giving those interested in VR a place to get together, exchange ideas, and find collaborators, but eventually, the fate of VR will be mostly shaped by large companies like Facebook, Google, and Microsoft.

"The meetup groups are going to be looked back at as the nostalgic, first beginning of the whole movement," he said.

Even Krantz, the champion of the ground-up approach noted that when a company gets acquired by a company like Oculus, they tend to disappear.

'How deep the rabbit-hole goes'

It's been a long wait. And still, there's no guarantee that the third time is, as they say, the charm. Still, we keep coming back to this idea that virtual reality is supposed to happen.

On some cultural level, we've been primed for it. Science fiction's been talking about telepresence and virtual worlds for decades.

"If you look at everything from sci-fi holodecks to the Matrix—the pop culture aspect of it—everyone has seen those movies and said, 'Boy wouldn't that be neat,'" Latta said.

Abrash, at F8, cited books like Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson and Ready Player One by Ernest Cline. He quoted the Matrix liberally.

Helen Papagiannis, a Ph.D researcher and designer, and author of the upcoming book 40 Ideas who's been working in augmented reality for the past ten years, agrees with the idea that VR and pop culture have a close relationship, but also thinks VR taps into a deep-seated part of the human condition—an innate desire to be limitless, to take the worlds our minds create when we dream, recreate them, and manipulate them.

"As inventors, as explorers, as makers, we want to push the boundaries of what's possible, and I think ultimately create new worlds," she said. And that means not only creating these worlds for ourselves, but so that we can invite others into them as well.

And that could be a really wondrous thing, as long as these technologies extend human imagination, and not supplant it, she said.

"I think VR right now is still half awesome, half imagination."
Mike Rothenberg

But beyond what our imaginations have made us feel we are owed, virtual reality could be a marker on a longer timeline.

Jacobson sees it as the progression of the human computer interface. While VR developers and enthusiasts get worked up every time a company makes a hardware announcement, the hardware might just end up fading away.

Forget keyboards, touchpads, flat displays, mice—and HMDs.

"To me, virtual reality represents an evolution of the ways in which we can display, present, and interact with computer generated data and real world environments with augmented reality," Jacobson said.

And if you're thinking that's one way to hint at brain implants, then you'd be right.

"I think that's the next step after after eyewear, glasses, contacts—a direct brain interface where we think our reality," Papagiannis said.

There are already moves being made in that direction. Australian electronics company Emotiv Systems has been working on neuroheadsets that can record brain waves and translate them into data, which could mean interpreting those waves into commands.

The reality of VR, though, has yet to be determined. With the first wave of HMDs like the HTC Vive starting to hit the market in Q4 of this year, and the consumer version of the Oculus Rift finally arriving in Q1 of 2016, there are no safe bets for what that first year of consumer VR could look like.

More than thirty years in, these are still early days.

Gartner applies a concept to emerging technologies called the Hype Cycle, intended to "discern the hype from what's commercially viable." It's a squiggly line that traces five phases of a technology's life, including technology trigger, peak of inflated expectations, trough of disillusionment, slope of enlightenment, and plateau of productivity.

Image: Shawn Whiting

Their last published Hype Cycle placed virtual reality just at the beginning of the slope of enlightenment, with about 5 to 10 years to go before hitting the plateau of productivity.

In the slope of enlightenment, companies are still cautious, but the ways that the technology could benefit the enterprise become clearer and better understood. This generally coincides with second and third-generation products.

The plateau of productivity—now, that's the thing. That's where you find the beginnings of mainstream adoption and payoff in terms of market applicability and relevance. That's the goal for any emerging tech.

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For Whiting and Lee from Convrge, they said they don't really think about VR's track record, the peaks and the troughs, if you will. Everything that's happened in the past—Sega, Nintendo, VPL, and so many others—speaks to progress.

"That stuff gives me hope..." Whiting said. "All these companies were doing R&D in the 90s because [VR is] such a prevalent thought."

Lee said that using the Oculus DK1 for the first time was enough proof that virtual reality was going to happen. He didn't really dissect it. He just knew he wanted to create worlds and walk around in them.

And the more recent prototype Crescent Bay?

"I had tears in my eyes," he said. "I can't imagine the people that have been waiting since the 80s."


Erin Carson is a Staff Reporter for CNET and a former Multimedia Editor for TechRepublic.