Virtual reality in its modern iteration has been around for about 61 years and has grown from being a movie theater experience to one that has become more personal. Placing your smartphone in a headset is now your ticket to an immersive, virtual world. On its face, VR’s entertainment and business value should be off-the-charts. However, as popular as VR should be, it is still plagued by the issue of headsets being expensive and cumbersome, a lack of understanding how it can be used, and by a dearth of good content. The road to popularity of VR has been neither smooth nor straight with would-be fans feeling, at the same time, that VR is ahead of its time yet still nascent in its applications. Now that VR has moved to the browser and is relatively easy to develop, it could take off in a big way provided there is buy-in from wait-and-see users.
When we talk about virtual reality we’re defining it as, “…computer technology used to create a simulated environment.” VR technology, in its optimal form, enables you to walk around, grab things with your hands, and look in every direction—in a virtual environment. The VR experience that users get is dictated by the type of headset that they use starting with something in the low range like Google Cardboard which can be purchased for about $20 and uses your smartphone to give you a simple 360-degree experience. The HTC Hive, on the other hand, retails for $799 and runs off of a powerful computer that affords the user a laser tracking system that lets them walk around a room with the help of a guide.
While we’re here, let’s also talk about VR’s first cousin, augmented reality (AR) which uses your smartphone camera and adds a layer of information on top of it. So, for example, if you are looking at a national monument through your camera with the appropriate AR app, you will also see a layer of facts and history about that structure. Pretty cool, right?
So, how will much of this content be accessed? By way of browsers, naturally. The emergence of web browsers that support 3D content—specifically Firefox Reality—will most likely boost VR’s popularity. Firefox Reality is being built pretty much from scratch and Mozilla describes it as a “cross-platform, open source, and privacy-friendly browser whose interface will be specialized for headsets.” Firefox Reality is designed to be device-agnostic as it will work with leading headsets like the HTC Vive Focus, Google Daydream, and Samsung GearVR. Other browsers are tied to specific headset brands such as Google’s experimental version of Chrome for Daydream and Microsoft’s Edge browser that is used in Window’s Mixed Reality. Firefox Reality may be most convenient for those new to VR and also to veteran users who wear different headsets.
Regardless of the bumpy path that VR has found itself on, tech guru and VR evangelist Mark Pesce believes “[VR] can become the most important cultural advance since writing. Knowledge and experience are not the same thing. You can transmit knowledge by writing it down. You cannot transmit experience through words.” The jury is still out on that sentiment, but the VR/AR market is forecast to be worth a staggering $162 billion market by 2020, and with all of the right components in place, it just might get there.