Is Virtual Reality really the future?

I’ve been an avid follower of all things VR since a hands-on experience with a military Virtual Reality simulator in the early 90s. For a time my bible was Howard Rheingold’s excellent “Virtual Reality” (1991), a seminal work that covered the great and good of VR (MIT, Jaron Lanier, Virtuality, LIFIA) and much else besides (including Spitting Image – yes really). For many years I avidly followed many of the various projects that Rheingold explored in his book, no mean feat in those pre-Google days, connected only, thanks to Delphi Internet, via the Twitter of its time: Usenet. As the years went by and the promised land of “Virtual Reality” drew no closer I started to lose interest, much as the rest of the world had also done.

Fast forward to 2012 and rumours of a breakthrough in VR; a Kickstarter project from a startup called Oculus VR, looking to build a revolutionary device called the Rift. Between then and now there has been much written about how Oculus (and now their parent, FaceBook) would revolutionise how we interact with computers. This idea has been given fuel by Google, with Cardboard, HTC with Vive and Samsung, who produced their Gear VR system with Oculus, to name just a few of the companies who’ve released a commercial Virtual Reality product in recent years.

Everywhere you turn there are pundits laying out a vision of the future, and at the heart of that vision is Virtual Reality. Yet, isn’t this familiar? Haven’t we heard these stories before? I know I have. The vision of VR being sold right now is the same one that I so enthusiastically bought into 25 years ago, and while there have been many leaps forward in so many areas – processing speeds, GPU power, batteries, component miniaturisation, wireless communications, the Internet – the Oculus Rift doesn’t look much different from the VR rigs of a quarter of a century ago. Perhaps more importantly, nor does it perform, fundamentally, any differently.

At the heart of every VR system, whether envisaged 25 years ago or created today by a Silicon Valley startup fresh from the garage, is the promise of a totally immersive artificial world that can be tailored to almost any purpose. And this siren song is what keeps people coming back to the idea. In VR you can build a world that can represent anything and allow people to interact with it in ways that simply couldn’t be enabled any other way. At least that’s the theory. The problem with this view is that, to date, almost all commercially successful VR systems have been designed for entertainment. Not that there’s anything wrong with this, but it’s a far cry from the promises of being able to visualise and interact with cells at a microscopic level, or carrying out experimental surgery from the perspective of an endoscope, or experiencing Mars first hand, without having to first cross 50-odd million kilometres of space.

So why does VR get stuck being a rich kid’s gaming system (and make no mistake, the price tags of the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, let alone the PCs needed to power them, are definitely only for the rich kids)? Part of the answer lies in how funding is raised to build these systems. There are a lot of companies that make a lot of money from computer entertainment, and this gives you the data to sell VR to investors. If you’re a hot new startup you’re going to struggle to get people to buy into a new, unproven medical diagnostic system that might only sell hundreds of units. If you do get the funding then you’ve got to convince highly conservative hospital administrations to buy into the bleeding edge. And that’s after you’ve found the right experts with the right credentials to advise you.

But there’s another reason why VR never makes it past being big boy’s toys. For all the promises of what VR can do, hardly anyone is investing time or money in the parts of the system that need the most improvement to facilitate those uses. As it stands today, even the most advanced VR systems are really nothing more than high definition immersive display systems, with incredibly poor control mechanisms.

The state of art in VR input is light years behind the promises made about the technology. Take a look at the controls of the leading VR systems, they are all modelled on gaming controllers, providing the sort of input (and feedback) suited to entertainment. Can you see a surgeon seriously consider an Oculus Touch as a suitable replacement for her own hands? Sure, surgeons use manipulators for certain surgeries (sometimes even remotely controlled), but where is the advantage in using a virtual environment that tries to simulate these tools, when you can train on the real thing?

And this really is the biggest problem with VR, both as it was 25 years ago and as it stands today. There are plenty of people doing research into simulating touch and feel, and creating hand-like manipulators that can provide astonishingly realistic feedback. Likewise there are lots of very talented people creating immersive displays that have amazing fidelity and reality. But how many are doing both? It appears that now, as was the case 25 years ago, that those leading the way in VR in the public view are more concerned with making something “look” real, while the interaction problem is left as an academic exercise for others to worry about. After all, how much interaction does a video game really need?

Until the same amount of time and, most importantly, money is spent on creating control mechanisms that enable VR to be a truly immersive experience, able to provide the level of touch and feel demanded by the most exacting of simulations, it will remain a promising technology limited by its own constraints. Right now VR is the poster child of a future that no-one is really delivering. For every amazing VR demo there are 10 games delivered via traditional platforms, completed and ready to be played. For every prediction of how VR is going to change the world, there is a technology being delivered that’s actually doing it. And while the promises of VR remain compelling, and they really are, the fact is that they were compelling 25 years ago, and we’re still no closer to seeing them made real.