Kristian Barnes
Nov 17, 2014

The future is virtually here, but is it real?

Consumer-level virtual reality has been 'the next big thing' for a couple of decades now. Vizeum's Kristian Barnes asks whether it is finally getting close to becoming a reality.

Kristian Barnes
Kristian Barnes

Ever since I watched the virtual-reality horror movie Lawnmower Man back in the distant past (1992 to be precise), I've been fascinated with the promise of virtual reality: to be whoever you wanted and do whatever you wanted, only limited by your own imagination.

Well yes, your imagination, and then the software designers' imagination and of course the technology. I am sure some of us remember Nintendo’s Virtual Boy, a VR console released at the height of VR mania. If you do, I am sure you also remember the headaches from the red-only graphics and the lack of motion tracking.

At that time VR, despite the promise and hype, never made it into consumers' everyday life. However, fast forward to now and elements of VR are everywhere. They are still mostly focused on immersion rather than interaction.

A few examples of this are Kinect, the Transformers ride at Universal Studios, the gaming glasses my kids use at home that overlay each persons perspective in 3D (so you don’t have to play split screens), and of course Oculus Rift.

Oculus Rift has restarted the conversation about the possibilities of Virtual Reality. A range of organizations are exploring how to use it in different ways from the US Navy (training) to The Des Moines Register (interactive journalism) to NASA (training) to Diplopia (solving vision disorders). However, we are still waiting for a consumer-based product.

For VR to make the leap to large-scale consumer success, not just to be for hardcore gamers or industry use, there are a number of hurdles, of which two are—solving physical movement (not just head tracking) and not looking silly in the hardware.

Interestingly, those two hurdles may not be as big as imagined.

The Cyberith Virtualizer allows full movement in a virtual environment. It is a low cost, fully funded Kickstarter project that starts shipping March 2015. This combined with an Oculus Rift headset will change the way one can move through a virtual environment. I can easily see these coming as a gaming hardware package in the near future that will appear on many gift lists. Of course, there are other applications across industries.

Now lets talk about Magic Leap. This is a new startup backed by Google and other big tech investors that has just raised US$542 million in second-round financing. Yes, $542 million. For what, you ask?

The company claims to be creating to a lightweight wearable that projects artificial, but realistic images directly onto your retina to change the perception of your actual environment. CEO Rony Abovitz has referred to it as “the world is your new silver screen” and “ going beyond augmented reality and virtual reality”. It will be similar in size to Google Glass, not Oculus Rift, and seemingly geared towards a consumer launch.

This would be a game changer for VR, in that the core purpose seems to be to integrate content into our real world vision seamlessly. The possibilities of this are staggering. Imagine you are walking down a street, wearing a pair of stylish Magic Leap glasses, suddenly Magneto appears and destroys a building (movie trailer), a person walks up to you to say that Uniglo have a new line in so pop in, its just on the next corner (retail); or you even start playing games like Halo, but on the street you live, with your friends.

In a world where more and more data on behaviour is available, and we seem comfortable sharing our data, the commercial opportunities of this technology are extremely interesting.

Whilst we are still a long way off from the virtual reality of the Lawnmower Man, Star Trek's 'Holodecks' and William Gibson’s vision of cyberspace experiences in our everyday lives, it does feel that we getting ever closer.

Kristian Barnes of CEO of Vizeum Asia-Pacific


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