On January 6, 2016, Oculus tweeted: “We’re excited to announce that
#Rift is available to pre-order on http://Oculus.com ! http://ocul.us/rift .” This is big news and will do much to make virtual reality (VR) part of our lives in the near future. We’ve come a long way from Nintendo’s 1995 Virtual Boy, one of many VR failures.
Remember when the Internet and the smartphone industry became mainstream? The same thing will happen with VR, and some are predicting 2016 will be the year, especially with the long-awaited arrival of the Oculus Rift, a VR system for the masses.
VR has similarities to the Internet and other emerging new technologies, especially in terms of how quickly it will become a part of everyday life, but another industry provides better insights into how VR will evolve. As a former student and teacher of film history, I see clear similarities between VR and the early cinema industry.
- New technology proponents are often convinced (or pretend to be) that it’ll be a boon to education. For example, Thomas Edison thought film would change the educational system. “It is possible to teach every branch of human knowledge with the motion-picture,” he said in 1914. “Our school system will be completely changed inside of ten years.” He also thought films would make school more appealing to young people. “Sort o’ swing the education in on them so attractively that they’ll want to go to school. You’ll have to lick ’em to keep them away,” Edison said, even earlier, in 1911.
- New technology is often touted for educational purposes, but is almost immediately used for pornography. Early filmmakers quickly realized there was a market for risque content. Le Coucher de la Mariée featured a strip-tease by Louise Willy in 1896. Its success was followed by many other films with sexual content. The same thing will happen with VR, and the porn and sex industry will eagerly integrate VR into their products.
- New technology is scary. A new invention could be the end of civilization as we know it. Or at least create unforeseen individual and societal problems. Civilization is, of course, never static. Post-industrial society is dependent on change. Still, in the early days of cinema, some wanted to censor or regulate the film industry in an attempt to “protect” members of society from themselves. In the case of VR, it’s easy to see that it could become addictive. Some will prefer VR to life and become dependent on the experience. We all know people who spend too much time on Facebook and other social media and ignore family and work life. We’ve even heard of people who play video games and ignore, sleep, food, and other basic necessities. There’s no question VR has the potential to become like a drug, but, truly, just about anything that’s halfway enjoyable can turn into a drug for the right (or wrong) person.
- Tremendous technological innovation will be the hallmark of early VR. Like film, VR relies on illusion or tricking the brain, and equipment is key. Unfortunately, equipment in a new technology’s early days is often unrefined. This means innovators will be forced to invent new tools and techniques. This includes headsets (even the Rift is too big and unwieldy), controllers, and even cameras. I recently took a Udemy course on making virtual reality films, and many filmmakers are developing their own cameras and other equipment, so they can customize technology to fit their needs. It reminds me, again, of early cinema when pioneers like the Lumiere brothers tinkered with their own cameras because they were unhappy with what was available.
- It will be interesting to watch how VR content evolves. Early film theorists argued about the purpose of cinema and wondered such things as whether film should reflect reality or provide an experience that is outside reality. Thomas Edison and the Lumiere Brothers were interested in documenting reality. One of Edison’s early films was correctly titled Fred Ott’s Sneeze. The Lumiere Brothers first film was Workers Leaving the Lumiere Factory. And that’s exactly what it was–a bunch of people walking out of a factory. Other filmmakers, most notably Georges Méliès took a different direction. Méliès, a magician and theatre director, successfully used illusions and special effects to depict worlds divorced from reality. By the way, as with film, we’ll also likely end up with college courses and majors on VR theory, history, etc., as VR becomes its own field of study.
In the last month or so, I’ve been talking a lot about virtual reality to friends and family. Most of them first respond by asking, “What is VR?” After the Rift ships in March, other VR systems are likely to follow. Next year at this time, in January 2017, few will be asking “What is VR?” Instead, they’ll be asking questions like “Which VR system should I buy?” or “Seen any good VR lately?”
It’s fascinating to contemplate the tipping point when VR becomes mainstream. Without a doubt, augmented reality (AR) in real life (IRL) is our future.