Virtual reality is being hailed as the biggest development in technology that we’ve seen in years. An article in Popular Science even noted “mainstream mixed reality” alongside advancements like a UV tracker that tells you when sun is penetrating your skin, or cells that cure cancer, as one of the best technological innovations of 2017. That’s quite something, when you think about it. Yet when you consider the range of uses and applications for virtual (and augmented) reality, it’s hardly a surprise. This is a new technological medium with implications in gaming, entertainment, retail, fitness, healthcare, and who knows where else?
But is virtual reality really an “innovation,” as we commonly call it? Or is it merely the next stage in something that we’ve been on the cusp of for a long while?
Many people have already forgotten that virtual reality had something of a surge back in the ‘90s, though it didn’t last. Indeed, one article in 2015 referred to this time as the “doomed virtual reality boom” of the ‘90s, which suggests that it never could have succeeded. That may be true in some ways. The article was largely tongue-in-cheek, discussing the heft, clumsiness, and occasionally gross (because others used the same headsets) quality of arcade virtual reality systems. We also didn’t have the same capacity to shrink VR then that we do now, because there were no smartphones. Nevertheless, the technology existed, albeit in a somewhat crude form. You could walk into an arcade and strap on a VR headset to play a game. There were even some minor gaming systems that amounted to in-home VR experiences, though they were quite limited.
We might also consider where gaming was before the rise of VR in late-2015 and early-2016 – because really, it wasn’t far behind. As you surely know if you’re a fan of gaming, console experiences had already reached an extraordinarily realistic level. Games simulated reality in amazing ways, even if players didn’t have headsets to trick their senses. Outside of the top console range, too, we saw similar advancement. As a guide on modern slot gaming on the internet put it, the implementation of HTML5 or Flash Player has driven enhanced graphics and super-smooth gameplay even in online arcades. In some cases these games even use 3D elements and cinema-like animations to simulate reality in their own way.
Modern mobile gaming is also worthy of consideration as we analyze the “newness” of virtual reality. Many of us think of VR primarily (or exclusively) as a visual concept. The truth is that anything that tricks our brains into leaving one reality and entering another could qualify as a form of VR – and mobile gamers have been working on this for years. There are plenty of app-based games that explicitly ask players to put in headphones for full immersion, or even to turn off lights. The idea is to allow yourself to fully engage with the games, diving in, so to speak.
None of these examples are as sophisticated as modern virtual reality, and most of them deal exclusively with gaming, whereas VR (as mentioned) has implications in all kinds of different areas. Nevertheless, the examples make clear that VR is less of an original innovation than we treat it as. The truth is that versions of this concept have been around for years now, and we saw the technology rise and fall way back in the ‘90s. This time around, VR seems to have more staying power – but we can’t say for sure.