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The State of Virtual Reality

By Mark Long
March 24, 2006 7:14AM

"Though the current state of VR technology is ahead of what has been brought to the consumer market thus far, compelling applications still need to be developed -- ones that really open up new services and information sources almost as much as the Web has already done," said Jackie Fenn at Gartner.

Virtual Reality had a genuine buzz going for it about 10 years ago, when movies like The Lawnmower Man and Virtuosity were getting the green light, and Nintendo's Virtual Boy game system attempted to bring the so-called artificial world into everyday living. The possibility of complete immersion in a computer-generated environment seemed, for a time, to fire up the public's imagination.

These days, however, virtual reality, or VR, is rarely mentioned in the news media. The Virtual Boy was a colossal failure, movies featuring VR are largely relegated to cult status, and, in general, the technology has failed to live up to the promise that it would transform our lives in areas ranging from entertainment to education to sports. What happened?

"On the one hand, virtual reality was quite compelling in early computer games like Dactyl Nightmare [from 1993], where you were attacked by a flying pterodactyl," said Jackie Fenn, a vice president at Gartner, a technology research firm. "You could get the hang of virtual space by listening for the pterodactyl's beating wings and turning around to see where it was coming from."

On the other hand, Fenn said, the isolating aspects of VR turned many people away from the technology. Entering a computer-generated environment often entailed strapping on bulky goggles and surrendering completely to the program. "Even for entertainment applications," Fenn said, "the experience is too intensively displaced from the real world for many people."

VR technology today is animating digital characters in blockbuster movies, helping to train doctors and nurses, and providing tactile feedback in cutting-edge video games. Is it time to pay attention again to virtual reality?

Early VR Developments

"What consumers really want are full VR immersion, big screens, and high video-headset resolutions, all of which are still too expensive to produce for the mass market," said Steve Glaser, vice president at Icuiti, a company that manufactures eyeware that doubles as a portable display. "Right now you only find these features in select medical applications or in military training and simulations where the VR displays cost between $50,000 and $70,000 each."

Hand, Head, and Glove

Another VR component that has yet to become a consumer hit is the video-based head-mounted display (HMD). "VR could be embedded into glasses or some other kind of custom eye-mounted display, but there has to be a compelling reason to do so," Fenn said.

What's more, she added, there is the "geek factor" to consider.

"When you think about how cell phones started, people went off into the corner to take a call because they were kind of embarrassed," Fenn noted. "But now there is no stigma to their use. The same was true of ear buds because people seemed to be talking to themselves on the street, but now that's no longer an issue either."

Still, just as Bluetooth ear buds quickly became a status symbol, it is not inconceivable that eyeglasses that allow you to read your private text messages -- expected on the market soon -- might eventually become a hit with consumers, Fenn said.

Not Yet Ready for Prime Time

HMDs for watching films and TV programs are already available from vendors such as Icuiti for between $250 and $550. However, the video quality achieved right now by Icuiti's video eyewear does not even begin to match the high expectations of today's consumers, Glaser said.

If someone were to produce a high-resolution (1,280 x 1,024 pixels) eyewear headset, the displays alone would cost $2,000, Glaser said. "And when all the other components are included, we are talking about a headset that would cost between $5,000 and $10,000 to produce."

Glaser believes that advances in VR software will drive down hardware costs eventually. "I think that a high-resolution HMD for consumers is doable within the next five years," he said, "but probably not within the next couple of years."

Just what will it take to drive down the price of VR gloves, wearable video displays, and other components? According to Gartner's Fenn, it's going to take a killer app. "Though the current state of VR technology is ahead of what has been brought to the consumer market thus far, compelling applications still need to be developed -- ones that really open up new services and information sources almost as much as the Web has already done," she said.

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