Widespread use of virtual-reality technology has been “just around the corner” since the 1980s, says Ben Judge. But with the growing popularity of augmented reality, we might finally be about to turn that corner.
“Suppose I make it so that you are in the story… and instead of being on a screen, the story is all about you, and you are in it.” – Pygmalion’s Spectacles, Stanley G. Weinbaum
Virtual reality (VR) – a holy grail of computer gamers who want a totally immersive experience – has been “just around the corner” for years now. It’s not a new concept – it first appeared in 1935 in Stanley G. Weinbaum’s science fiction short story, Pygmalion’s Spectacles, according to Mike Colagrossi on Big Think. But it wasn’t until 1981 that the phrase “virtual reality” appeared. It was reportedly coined by Jaron Lanier, a computer scientist, author, artist and philosopher, on whom the lead character in 1992 film The Lawnmower Man – in which a scientist conducts VR experiments on his gardener with the aim of making him a genius – is said to be based.
Since the advent of computers, many manufacturers have tried to bring the concept to life. But it has eluded them. The hardware and software has just not been good enough. True, gamers now have a decent crop of headsets with Facebook’s Oculus (Facebook believes the future of VR lies in social gaming – Mark Zuckerberg has said he wants a billion people to be using the technology), HTC’s Vive, Samsung’s Gear and Sony’s PlayStation VR among the most popular devices.
But VR games have been the “next big thing” for some time now and, while the hardware is getting better and game developers are producing more appealing titles, it does seem that mass adoption is still “just around the corner”.
But VR is just part of the picture – and only a small part at that. Most players are betting that the future lies not so much in VR, but in “augmented” reality (AR). Estimates of the size of these markets vary wildly. But most believe the AR market will be at least four times the size of the VR market. Tim Merel, writing on venturebeat.com, reckons the global AR market could top $75bn in revenue by 2023, while the VR market could be worth up to $15bn.
Zion Market Research, meanwhile, estimates that the global AR and VR market will hit $814.7bn by 2025, up from just $26.7bn in 2018. Whichever figure you opt for, it’s clear that a significant new market is opening up.
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