There's no doubt that 2016 is the year of big promise for virtual reality.
While the technology is still maturing, this will be the first year that users have access to affordable VR technology in the home, including the $100 Gear VR headset that was released during the last week of 2015. Other upcoming, highly-anticipated releases include Oculus Rift, Sony PlayStation VR, and the HTC Vive, which have all already begun pre-orders and will start shipping in March (Oculus), May (HTC), and October (Sony). Microsoft HoloLens AR; is the biggest contender in augmented reality and they have also begun shipping developer kits early this year.
It’s clear that virtual reality has the potential to, more than ever, influence our daily lives —so what does that mean? First, it’s important to note that VR isn’t the only technology-driven experience coming our way. We’re also going to see important developments in augmented reality, or AR. Of course, these variations of reality will make us take a good, hard look at what we already know: real reality, or RR.
“It’s so freaking powerful that the world is going to do whatever it can to get there as fast as it can.” - Ebbe Altberg, CEO of Linden Lab
Undeniably, the hype for VR is enormous and it’s only growing as we get closer to anticipated product releases. As of January 16th, just ten days after the pre-order launch, Oculus Rift was already four months backordered. Previously known as Project Morpheus, the Sony PlayStation VR headset will make VR a reality for everyone who already owns a PlayStation 4, at an affordable $399 price point compared to Oculus Rift’s hefty $599 + the powerful gaming computer that will be required to support it (sold separately) or the HTC Vive's $799.
So why is the hype so big? It’s simple—we crave presence, and VR gives us just that. It’s the sensation of being fully immersed, or being one with your virtual environment. A game that has presence captures you completely, from the moment you put on the headset to the second that you take it off, exhilarated and already craving the next session. The first rule of VR is “don’t break the presence.” We have a good sense that Oculus Rift and other anxiously awaited consoles will do everything that they can to maintain the illusion.
We can’t wait for virtual reality to get here in a bigger and more accessible way, even though simple innovations like Google Cardboard have made VR accessible in a small way for the rest of us in the meantime.
Many consumers aren’t yet aware of augmented reality, but it’s one of the developments over the next few years that we’re most excited to see. How does AR differ from VR? While both require a headset, VR’s job is to remove the user sensorially from the real world around them. AR, on the contrary, augments the real world with virtual objects. The Microsoft Hololens, for example, is slated to be the first dedicated AR system, using sophisticated holographic technology to project dynamic, interactive images into your real-world experience.
While you can certainly play games, like a Minecraft knock-off called “Building Blocks,” what’s truly impressive is the variety of real-world applications. Hololens users can talk to each other face-to-face via Skype, feeling like they’re in the room together from hundreds of miles away. Users can interact with holographic objects in front of them in order to manipulate them on the computer monitor. They can even walk on Mars (this one’s not as practical as the last two, but it’s impressive nonetheless.)
Interestingly, AR isn’t limited to a dedicated console or system. Pokemon Go is an upcoming game that’s poised for release on smartphones, and will have players catch in-game Pokemon in real-world locations. It makes us curious to see what other applications of AR technology may be possible using smartphones as the platform.
It’s the reality that we all live and breathe in, so it almost seems silly to give it a name. However, as Joel Stein observes in a Time cover article "Why Virtual Reality Is About to Change the World" employees at Facebook and Oculus who work with VR and AR on a daily basis need to distinguish between the three variations of reality, so “real reality” (RR) it is. If you've read Ernest Cline's Ready, Player One, you know how important the distinction is. (We’re excited for the Spielberg directed movie adaptation, 2017 release date!) The human brain is malleable, and as we begin to more boldly integrate augmented and virtual reality into our every day, the fundamental differences will become less clear and more in need of a definition.
As we continue to develop and define new ideas for how augmented and virtual realities can not only entertain us, but also solve problems, we’ll also be required to define and redefine Real Reality. These new technologies and concepts are finally being released en masse, which will undoubtedly reveal reality’s greatest potentials.