Virtual reality: Is it more important than we realize?

For the last century, virtual reality has had mixed reviews. As an entertainment device, it has been treated like a gimmick, or avoided entirely by businesses. When the general public is asked about it most people have a wait and see attitude. No one is really against the idea of VR headsets and holodecks, but many wonder if virtual reality is worth all the money and time. 


Virtual reality isn't a new concept, in fact it has roots tracing back to 1838. The first virtual reality device was actually created by Charles Wheatstone, an English scientist and inventor.  At the time, Wheatstone wasn't attempting to create a new form of media, but to show those around him that “the brain processes the different two-dimensional images from each eye into a single object of three dimensions.” His work further proved that “viewing two side by side stereoscopic images or photos through a stereoscope gave a user a sense of depth and immersion.”

This first instance of virtual reality may not be as impressive today, but because of Wheatstone and the stereoscope the way has been paved for many more attempts over the years to fully immerse the population in a virtual world. Some were admirable, like cinematographer Morton Heliig's 1960's virtual reality booth, which not only just simulated audio and visual aspects, but provided fans and a vibrating chair to give customers a fully immersive film. 

Others, like Nintendo's 1995 Virtual Boy were not so good. This caused eye damage to children under seven, and according to some reports “caused a strain on the eyes when used for periods as short as 15 minutes.”  What it does show us is that no matter how bad virtual reality gets there is still a demand for it. What is still unsure is whether or not virtual reality is worth the effort, or if we should just move on to something else. 

Wheatstone’s intent wasn't virtual reality; he was actually trying to change how people saw things. The idea behind the stereoscope was to show people how binary vision worked, because up until then people didn’t really know why they needed two eyes to properly see. According to early adapters and supporters of virtual reality, programs are the true strength of virtual reality, which provides the ability to educate people through a new medium. 


Alex Kennedy has always had a love of technology. Often labeled as a technology trendsetter, he has always had a love of new and emerging technology. From Value's new Steam Controller to the Oculus Rift, Kennedy is willing to give new innovations a try, especially virtual reality. 

Kennedy’s passion for computers and the tech world is why he is such a strong supporter of virtual reality.  In his opinion they won't just be a fun distraction but a real game changer. He says that “you're not just watching or listening anymore.” He goes on to explain that with motion tracking technology, along with noise canceling headsets, people are fully emerged in their entertainment.  

He points out that virtual reality simulators might be mainly for games now, but in time they could change the way people learn and see the world around them. He elaborates with the example of higher education. “If a person can't make it to class in the future they could fully immerse themselves in an online lecture hall. This could easily save online lectures and classes. Even making them just as legitimate as the real thing,” says Kennedy.    

He pushes the idea that if people really support virtual reality technology we could live in a world of different perspectives. “Right now most VR headsets are used to experience games. To be part of a fantasy world, or epic science fiction adventure. What if we used this technology to allow people to experience different ways of life?” Kennedy speculates that if the general public really gives virtual reality a chance we could live in a world where a person could really see what it was like to be an African American during the 1960s American civil rights movement, or see the true horrors of war as a solider in the Battle of Dieppe during World War 1. 

He feels the easiest way to bring people together is by understanding other cultures, and Kennedy believes that virtual reality technology can be the tool to do it, but only if we give it time.  He points out that, “people often don't realize the advancements in virtual reality in just the past three years.” He mentions that because of growing interest, people have developed motion tracking technology allowing a person to move in real time. “The Oculus Rift started out as just a headset, but with growing interest controls and sound have been added. This will only continue with time and interest,” he says. 


Despite all the positivity he has towards virtual reality, Kennedy knows there are still some issues. “One of the key concerns of virtual reality supporters is that most people struggle to justify purchasing it.” He goes on to say that “the Oculus Rift alone is $798 American, and that's not adding in the computer software requirements you need.” 

He continues to speak on the ever increasing price, mentioning that when most home computers are brought up to virtual reality standard a considerable amount of money is spent. “Often times it will take at least $1000 to get your computer up to spec along with the initial cost of the virtual reality device, suddenly you’re looking at around a $2000 purchase.” 

Another concern is that despite the potential of virtual reality, many people are dismissing it as a gimmicky tool.  What worries Kennedy is that virtual reality will fail not on its own merits, but because people won't give it a chance. “I don't want virtual reality to die out because we didn’t try hard enough. I don't want it be a what-if.” 

The big issue of virtual reality is not that it lacks promise, or even technology, but that it may just  not hold people's attention long enough to become affordable. Syd Bolton, tech guru, understands these concerns, and does his best to shed some light on why people feel the way they do. 

Bolton has had a passion for computer technology his whole life. He has spent over 20 years as a tech expert. He is currently the owner and curator of one of Canada's only personal computer and video games museum, and is an active computer columnist for the Brantford Expositor.  

Despite his love of technology, Bolton does understand why people, and in most cases businesses, are hesitant to jump on the virtual reality bandwagon.  He says that, “virtual reality for some is a lot like 3D at the movies. It seems like many movies support it, and many audience members love it, but it's not for everyone and it's certainly not for every application.” Bolton also explains that there is no proven business case that would suggest that virtual reality makes money. This, in his opinion, is why so many companies are withholding their support. 

This is why Bolton believes individuals, often on Kickstarter, are one of the ways virtual reality programs will survive. He says that, “today the technology is so much better and people know it. The prototypes that have been out there and now, the actual products prove that today's virtual reality is so much better than before and the experiences are absolutely amazing.”  

Bolton is aware of the price of this technology and some of virtual reality's side effects, but does believe it is worth getting into. “It's worth it if you get a chance to try it and enjoy it. Not everyone will in fact, some people get motion sickness from VR,” he says.  His recommendation for those who are unsure is to try before you buy. He does explain that “it's still fairly early in the game so you might want to wait, but if you have got the itch and you've got the money I say go for it.” 

What he does explain is why virtual reality has a loyal devoted community despite the initial costs.

He believes that virtual reality is an entertainment medium like no other. “While television has traditionally been a passive form of entertainment and video games have been interactive,virtual reality takes us to the next level and while it has grown from its infancy of a few years ago, it still remains to be seen if the true vision of virtual reality is finally upon us,” says Bolton. 


Bolton, like many in the tech world, see virtual reality as the next big step in innovation, not just for gaming but other aspects of life. “I think it's worth it not only for the entertainment aspect, but more importantly overall I think it will allow us to do things as a society that will become important going forward.” 

He touches upon Kennedy's ideas that virtual reality can lend itself as a teaching tool. Bolton goes on to explain that surgeons can better practice in simulators in a safer environment. He brings in the idea that astronauts can learn how to do things in "space" without the expense and danger of being there. He states that “virtual reality is an important thing that I think will pay us back as a society in spades.” 

Ultimately, Bolton still feels a little unsure about virtual reality’s place. He mentions that, “I think it may end up a little like 3D movies where it's just accepted that it's there, but you can live without it.” He still believes that virtual reality will only improve the lives of people, but thinks that the real value will be in the way it teaches people rather than entertains them. 

Virtual reality has the potential to do great things. It started as a tool designed to educate, and over the last 100 years it became an entertainment device.  Perhaps in the next decade it could become a tool for learning and entertainment. At this point it isn't a question of why should it be supported, but a question of what will happen if it is given mainstream support. 

Forecasted start year: 
2016 to 2020


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