Software & Web Development

Virtual Reality 2016: Hyped but needing a dose of calm

“Experts warn of possible dizziness, nausea, and loss of coordination after extended exposure.” In 1995 a TV report  cited research by Kay Stanney of the University of Central Florida warning of the side effects of prolonged use of VR.

“What happens when you go from the virtual world back to the real world and say, drive a car?” asked the reporter in the report. Stanney, who now runs simulation and training company Design Interactive in Orlando, talked about a mismatch between virtual and real worlds “causing us to become ill”.

In 1995 VR was of course still in its infancy. It had been overhyped and the overreaction concerning ‘cybersickness’ was to a certain extent understandable. VR headsets were being touted as training aids for surgeons and pilots but it was all being blown out of proportion. Yes there was bound to be a readjustment but why for goodness sake would anyone want to jump straight in a car after using a VR headset?

Those early reports, such as this Chicago Tribune one, smack of technology naivety and scaremongering. Has anything changed?

This month the VR side-effects issue raised its head again. A story in the Wall Street Journal talked about “nausea, eyestrain and headaches”, yet only last March had Valve Software claimed it had eradicated VR sickness with its Vive headset that was developed with HTC. This bold claim also prompted Valve writer Chet Faliszek to say that developers and not hardware manufacturers are now responsible for any VR-related sickness or nausea.

Cybersickness is still clearly an issue that needs fully addressing and if Faliszek is right, perhaps we will see the implementation of content guidelines for developers. (And maybe also writers pursuing deeply psychological content to scare the pants off users?)

According to Stanney, much has been done to address VR motion sickness since her TV report in ’95.

“We can now add fixed horizons to our visual content, reduce virtual movement throughout a VR, minimize the length of exposure duration and so on,” she says. “However, until we can provide vestibular stimulation that mimics the virtual movement in the virtual world, I do not foresee this problem being resolved.”

More hype?

All of this however will not dampen the clamour for VR technology. Consultancy firm Deloitte predicts that the VR market will have its first billion-dollar year this year, driven mostly by hardware sales ($700m). It expects two and a half million headsets and 10 million copies of games to be sold in 2016.

No one is baulking at the numbers but there is a sense of trepidation from the industry, seemingly trying to curtail the hype. Noah Falstein, Google’s chief game designer since 2013, said at CES in January this year (speaking to the CTA) that “the combination of super-low latency and high frame rate in VR display devices, together with exact position tracking input, puts you there in the world. It changes everything. That means that we are past the starting line.”

No one really doubts that. CES was full of VR, particularly gaming. You only have to look at the breadth of vendors to realise the potential is real. Samsung Gear VR, Oculus Rift (due in March), HTC Vive (due in April) and Sony’s PlayStation VR are big names with big products. Two years ago this would all have seemed improbable.

According to Ben Trewhella, founder and CEO of VR developer Opposable Games in Bristol, England (and also co-founder of the forthcoming VR event VR World Congress), games are not the endpoint for VR. While Trewhella is focussed on making games and believes games will drive initial interest in VR, he believes that developments further up the industry chain could help fine-tune the technology and even drive it on.

“The market at the moment is predominantly for gamers but you will see an increased take-up in industry, particularly film and TV, defence, retail and engineering,” he says, claiming that the training and simulation aspect of VR could be significant.

This is certainly something with which Stanney agrees. Her business, she says has a growing interest in VR training solutions for the military, as well as VR and augmented reality training, and operational support in the commercial sector.

With lower price points for commercial headsets it’s possible and there are plenty of companies looking to use VR headsets in developing niche applications – take a look at SensoMotoric Instruments and Strivr, for example. Yet until the VR market actually starts to produce consistently compelling content and experiences it is difficult to see this realising its hype for this year.

Trewhella also plays down the expectancy, preferring a modest workmanlike tone when he suggests that this year will be as much about developing skills and building software than actually seeing big returns from sales, although the company has had plenty of interest from industries keen to pursue the technology.

So will 2016 be the year of VR? Probably not but it will certainly be a year in which it finally becomes a viable, commercial market, paving the way for investment and perhaps developer confidence. Until then, this is a market that’s simmering with leaders trying to avoid the demons of the past. It still has a long way to go but it could at last be about to drop its ‘virtual’ tag.

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Marc Ambasna-Jones

Marc Ambasna-Jones is a UK-based freelance writer and media consultant and has been writing about business and technology since 1989.

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