google Cardboard VR glasses front… I’ve been here for years.. Song?  Anybody?  That’s right!  LL Cool J, ah a trip in the way back machine.  However, we are not going to talk about ’91 rap, instead we are going to talk about what VR was in ’91 when ‘Mama said knock you out,’ was released, then again in ’98 when we thought VR was going to take off… and now 2014.  What changed?  And what is still the same? (ed: wrote this back in Oct, rewrote in Nov, then forgot to post… sigh…  I know its 2015 now.)

First off I’m going to focus on VR and not include AR because although many people like to mix these two systems, immersive AR is VERY hard while simple HUD level AR is already available in your car.  So lets see what we need for a good VR system, which is basically the same thing that Ivan Sutherland created in 1968 (that’s 46 years ago kittens). His head-mounted three dimensional display contained most of the basic elements we consider needed for VR.  A head mounted stereo display, motion tracking, orientation tracking, high speed image rendering, HCI input.  Missing was 3 things from the ’68 system. Easy content creation, user comfort and finally the Internet.  But to be fair, the Internet did not exist back then, but I bet if it did Ivan would have pulled the content over the wire just to be cool.  Oh and one more thing that was missing.  Not everyone could afford to build one of these things.  As such, not much happened with VR in a non military theater for awhile although research continued on.   Then two things happened.  The mid 80’s and mid 90’s.

In the early 80′ Graphic workstations were cheap enough and powerful enough that professionals could buy them.  This allowed the general public to have its first taste of 3D generated images that were at the time limited to Hollywood movies like Looker and the landmark Tron.  These workstation were still pretty expensive but as each year passed, they got more powerful such that you could render over 15 frames a second and create the illusion of motion.

As we drifted from the 80’s to the 90’s workstations were getting more and more powerful and cheaper because of Moore’s law.  This allowed more and more people to play around with high pipeline graphic computing, so much so, you could actually render a textured scene over 15 frames a second!  3D became not something only done on very powerful and expensive powerhouse workstations, but on a workstation you could by in the 10’s of thousands of dollars.  Now 3D graphics and effects were all over television instead of just high end movies.  It was only a matter of time before young hackers starting putting the output of these workstations onto two small screens on a headset.  Using various approaches to head tracking, and suddenly VR seemed very real with store fronts allowing users to enter a pod, don a 3D headset and play 3D games. Siggraph got more and more interesting every year and each year seem to surpass the previous.

By now VR really took off in the public imagination. Films like Tron and later Lawnmower Man that introduced 3D and VR to a game called Dactyl Nightmare by company called Virtuality that when hit the Press made everyone go nuts. Seemed like VR was really here!  Now everyone was writing about it and people wringing their hands that this would be the end of our humanity.  But this was just the beginning, Moore’s law and more accessible 3D creation tools like VRToolKit and 3D editing tools kept the hype expanding… and I was there.

leahVFX1Back in 1994 I was doing research on VR through a service called Gopher then later using something very new and cool called the worldwideweb which you accessed through a browser called Mosaic (we are going way back kiddies) I started researching 2D cad, 3D cad, and finally VR while studying Architecture at UC California, Berkeley … Even in my own lab in Berkeley, I had a VFX1 HMD running on a PC.  A PC!  The leaps and bounds of computer power seemed limitless.  And with each new CPU came faster and faster framerates.  Memory was going down too, so putting textures on objects was not only a real possibility and broke real time ceiling that was limiting 3D with only phone shading.  Further the gaming industry had its first big break through. Quake! (we can argue duke nukem another time)  In fact, I found Quake was faster then any of the 3d rendering engines from any school at the time.  I did my masters thesis using modified maps with Quake and the VFX1 HMD.

And then… All went quite.  Was it over hype? Tech bobble burst? Wasted dollars on projects that never made sense in the first place?  Yes.

Fast forward to 2014.

So here we are.  The Oculus rift which was a geeky kickstarter project exploded and then got bought by Facebook.  It finally seemed that perhaps VR for the masses could be possible.  Then shoe No.2 dropped. At Google I/O a cool little project was presented called Google cardboard, which basically gave you a simple VR headset made out of cardboard using your phone as the display and computer.  Didn’t take long for a number of higher material devices to be created on the same concept including Samsung’s Gear VR using the Note4.  Suddenly we had the basic building blocks of Cheap VR for the masses.  We also have more content.  3D video is part of the VR offering making VR not just the real of playing video games.  Speaking of games, Unity now comes with an Oculus publishing option.  We also have broadband.. well most of us do.  So is this?  Will it really happen this time???

Ummm.. Not sure..  There still are some problems.

First, there is not THAT much content.  I see a number of videos coming out but they are all proof of concepts and many of them are not that good of quality. Games?  Yes there are a few games made especially for the VR experience but most are demos.  There is still more money focusing on the PC or console gamer.   VR sickness?  Its getting better with faster frame-rates and better tracking, but many VR designers still do not understand just how close to the edge the user is before they get sick of orientation disruption is is taken too far.  That being said…

I think there is a good chance we have hit the tipping point where VR can become a nitch consumer industry.  Right now I’m waiting with baited breath for the NBA All Stars 360 Video to come out for the Gear VR.  I’m really hoping they are taking the extra time to make it look nice and feel immersive. Speaking of the Gear, I love the fact that I can put the headset in the car or backpack and with my note 4, access VR anywhere, anytime.  THIS IS NEW and this is big.  With a bluetooth controller, I pretty much have all I need for a sit down VR experience.  This is something we have not had from the beginning.  In time I expect the HMD to shrink to glasses size again using the phone for computing power.  Its this freedom and flexibility that is what will keep VR from busting again.

Post:  Its March already and I’m doing a quick edit and posting this before I forget again.  In the time between first wriring this and today we have seen a number of new HMD’s come out as well as Microsoft’s amazing HoloLens.  Its the HoloLens I’m most excited about.  The usecase for AR displays in the home and work is mind bending.  I have not seen it in person, but believe me, the moment I do, I will be posting!!!

So my bet on VR/AR?   I do not think we have seen the full potential yes, or anything close, but I do not expect to see a bust like we did at the beginning of 2000.  With low cost hardware, better software and access to high speed internet, the VR industry will only grow from here…. Slowly.