The concept of virtual reality has been tossed around for decades, but it first gained serious attention when Jaron Lanier coined the term in the early 1980's. Today, Lanier is known as the father of virtual reality, and is considered one of our industry's top futurists. When I first met him in the early 1990's and he discussed virtual reality, it sounded more like science fiction. The idea that a person could be transported via 3D and 360-degree imaging into a digital scene was just too fantastic for me to grasp back then.
But fast forward about 25 years, and suddenly virtual reality technology is on our doorstep. Whether it's the Oculus Rift, the HTC Vive or Samsung's Gear VR, we have — or we're about to have — technology that can transport a person in ways unimaginable just a few years ago.
I've had a chance to test many of these headsets, and the experience each delivers is fascinating. Microsoft’s HoloLens, which projects holograms into the wearer's physical space, is perhaps the most immersive of the group. But the Oculus also makes one feel like they're part of the action. Both of these products are at the high end of the VR experience, with estimated and actual prices to match.
On the other hand, Samsung’s Gear VR headset, which works with many of Samsung's smartphones, can give many customers a cheaper taste of what VR is all about. At $99, the Gear is priced for a wider range of shoppers.
The first obvious use case for virtual reality is gaming. But the reason that consumer VR may take off sooner rather than later is that a wide variety of industries, from travel to real estate, are about to embrace it. Cruise companies will soon be taking 360-degree photos and videos of their ships, allowing would-be customers to take VR tours before booking. Real estate companies will do likewise with available properties. And in the retail space, Retale is building an experience that lets shoppers peruse a digital showroom while getting help from a virtual assistant.
Virtual reality is still in its infancy, and it's true that it will be adopted by gamers and techies at first. But as more lower-cost headsets hit the market and lots of different industries embrace the technology, VR will be driven into the consumer market much faster than anyone expects. Ultimately, it will deliver a much more immersive computing experience than anything available today.
Tim Bajarin is recognized as one of the leading industry consultants, analysts and futurists, covering the field of personal computers and consumer technology. Mr. Bajarin is the President of Creative Strategies, Inc and has been with the company since 1981 where he has served as a consultant providing analysis to most of the leading hardware and software vendors in the industry.