The somewhat short lived “Virtual Reality Systems” magazine ran an irregular column “Bitz and Bytz” subtitled “These news items are excerpts of what happened in the world of Virtual Reality during the past 12 months.” Have a gander at the Spring 1994 Quarterly update.
Well we all saw how the VR hype slowly faded out in the late 90s – so how can i put up such a title?
Some people might have noticed the recent boom of 3D related stuff. It somehow started last year, suddenly the buried technology was quickly excavated and sold as the most brilliant innovation of 2009. We are not really sure who started it. Maybe it was “Avatar”, the new most seen movie in the world, maybe it was Fuji with the first digital 3D consumer camera – or was it Panasonic with their new Professional 3D camcorder? And the new wave continued – this year we were excited to learn that Nintendo’s next DS handheld will have a 3D screen and that the soccer worldcup will be aired in 3D.
And as with the VR hype we get countless options to buy Snake Oil again. Yeah suddenly all new TV’s are quickly converted to “HD 3D TV Sets” by just throwing a pair of cheap shutterglasses into the box.
I think it is safe to claim that the average IQ went down a bit if these sell really well as they are still the same kind of Shutterglasses that they tried to sell you in the early 90s as the “ultimate 3D experience”. Okay this year they are wireless, but if you have a remote idea about what shutterglasses are you will have to admit that it makes very limited sense to run around while wearing them unless you own a TV set that is willing to run in front of you.
Anyways, i think it is clear we will see enough people that kiss their brand new 3000 Dollar “3D TV”, proudly wearing their shutter glasses, knowing they have reached the pinnacle of technology.
Anone who is having doubts about these predictions definitely missed the whole history of 3D which – since Sir Charles Wheatstone invented the tech in 1838.
What Mr. Wheatstone probably did not know was that his technology would spread as a wave that permanently goes up and down – between hype and forgotten. Will this curse be banned and everything will be 3D from now on? Very unlikely. As in 1838 most people will drool about the “new” tech for a while, but soon after the first shutter glasses will get lost under the couch again – just as usual. Some ideas presented last year were quite interesting, but most probably no breakthrough. That the Fuji “W1” camera comes with a revolutionary new display that allows viewing 3D without glasses is true, but the parallax barrier is neither new nor perfect. If you ever held a Fuji W1 in your hands you will get what i mean – unless you hold the display perfectly straight and aligned with your eyes it simply won’t work. The angle of view is probably like 3 Degree, the slightest tilt of your head and the 3D is gone. First Digital camera display that only one person a a time can view.
I think the only final answer to 3D would be a display without glasses that has an extremely far angle of view and a price tag that is extremely close to casual displays.
But Okay that’d 3D and what about the VR stuff you promised? OK got me – there isn’t really anything new at the classic VR market, no stunning new VR helmets or headtrackers. But the fate of VR has always been tied to the fate of 3D. If the current 3D hype will keep going as the industry wants us to believe then VR will get a second chance. The first wonder already happened – and remains undetected by most pros – the game to our world’s most popular movie – avatar. To my highest astonishment the game features a Field sequential stereoscopic mode – and suddenly i was playing a 2010 game on my old 1995 iglasses and VFX-3D VR headsets without any obscure combination of old stereoscopic Nvidia drivers and hardware. But as expected – the video game magazines didn’t really take notice of this small sensation. Can’t blame them as most writers there probably wore diapers when Cybermaxx, VFX-1 and co hit the market in mid 90s.
Does this save VR immediately? Not really, but it’s some light in this room that was dark for years. Insider joke: Q: How could you immediately make VR an industry standard and have everyone buy a VR headset? A: Have Apple rebrand a batch of old VFX-1 as “iVR”.
So well you probably know that it is not a standard that new computers get shipped with VR headsets, although you might have believed that during the mid-90s VR craze. In 1995 many analysts – serious people – predicted that in 10 years most computers would be shipped with VR headsets or other VR equipment. OK that didn’t happen in 2005 and even 5 more years later in 2010 VR equipment is still rather regarded as rather obscure. So let’s take a look what went wrong with our future visions from the 90s.
Ubiquitous Computing With A Headset – It Takes Two To Tango
10. Your own eyes never get out of fashion.
Sounds stupid but it’s basically one of the main flaws of VR. While no one can seriously argument against 5 minutes of VR fun at the arcade, it is rather unlikely you can convince someone to wear VR headsets for hours during his daily work. Especially in the medical field where many people had high hopes on a VR revolution – surgeons seeing the flesh half transparent with bones and arteries highlighted in their VR headsets – it simply didn’t happen. While there are other technical reasons for these difficulties, we simply forget that surgeons worked well for centuries without reasons to distrust their own eyes.
VR Medicine Meets Gaming
9. Tech doesn’t necessarily improve.
Well when some of us joined the VR hype in the mid 90s we bought equipment at ridiculous high prices, we spent a thousand bucks on a VR headset that has a resolution of 263 x 240 or close to that. While High end devices with rather impressive resolutions like 1024 x 768 were available they were ridiculously expensive, 5000 USD would have been a bargain. We thought like “in 5 years you’ll get them for 99.95 at the discount outlet”, but now about 15 years later this still didn’t happen. Now in 2010 the only halfway serious consumer headsets are the current iglasses and e-magin models, both around 1000 USD and only offering 800 x 600 resolution. Here we have an obvious exception to Moore’s Law.
8. Cyber Sickness
Some people suffer from motion sickness. Some less serious; some already get sick when a car passes by at moderate speed. The same goes for cyber sickness, but what makes cyber-sickness worse is that some people just don’t expect it and act accordingly. Usually if you feel the first symptoms like diziness or your eyes start hurting you should just stop, take off the visor and get a break. Well some people, being unaware of this, ignore the warning signs and literally play until they vomit or at least complain about headache. while no one would refuse to buy a car because they heard you can get motion sick, VR quickly gained this “VR makes you sick myth”, so in some cases one sufferer may have convinced 100 other people that “VR is crap and makes you sick”. Cyber sickness is present but it’s not as bad as some people would have you believe. Basic rule: When you have never been riding a car before don’t drive a full length race of the Indianapolis 500.
7. Too Much snake oil
Actually this could be reason #1 but I keep it at #7 lest the reader think I’m selling it also. Over-promised expectations and under-delivered products (or none at all) were rampant in the mid 90s. While there were fairly nice VR products in “reasonable” price ranges like 2000 USD or below, the hype quickly attracted the purveyors of snake oil. With most VR systems priced out of the home entertainment market, some bright people felt that nature abhors a market vacuum and introduced VR headsets that were both affordable and unwatchable. Among these were big companies like Philips with their infamous “Scuba” headset. Like all of the other fake VR products (Nintendo Virtual Boy?) that put a dent in VR’s image, these usually lacked head tracking, stereoscopy, VGA connector and a tuner – which made these devices quite useless, notwithstanding the terrible image quality. And in the end this is what some people thought VR was – a shitty TV set clamped on your head.
Sounds trivial but this was one of the main problem with VR headsets – there was no standard. In the end m0st manufacturers of consumer VR headsets made them using line interlaced (Field sequential) format – which basically means the first horizontal TV line is the first line on the left screen, 2nd line is the 1st line on right screen, 3rd line is the seond line left and so on. This does not just half the resolution but also some manufacturers simply switched the order of lines for unknown reasons. Some commercial games offered screen modes for these formats as well as some VR related applications. What is even worse is the “quasi standard” of many pro VR headsets which offered separate A/V or VGA in for each single eye. While on first glance this seems to be a great solution – full resolution signal for each eye – it proved to be a real terrible solution as no consumer PC or VCR came with 2 graphics cards and even if you bought an additional card you would most probably not be able to use it as the operating system and application and games simply didn’t support it – other than the Virtuality 1000/2000/3000 series arcade machines and some other professional setups.
The Promise of Standards – ISA Bus Forever!
5. Lack of professional applications
Most technologies that reach the consumer market have derived from “pro” applications and as the devices become more affordable they fall into the consumer market segment. With VR this was somehow twisted upside down – at first there were arcade games and then some people tried to think of some neat uses for industry and business. This didn’t work out well. Some VR gurus might want to tell you like “Every car is designed in VR, every oil well is drilled with VR and all research on macro molecules relies on VR”. This is only half of the story. Car design is indeed one of the last industries where VR is used, but it plays a minor role, mainly used for pre-production studies of design reception; it rather plays a niche role and while it might have been helpful here or there I think it’s safe to claim that car design became neither better nor worse with help of VR. Same applies for oil rigs – while it might, under special circumstances, be helpful to check the planned drill deployment in VR to get a faster impression where obstacles might get in the way, VR certainly did not revolutionize oil drilling nor does it play an important role. And maybe some wonders of chemistry have only been understood as scientists could watch up close, the insides of macro molecules dancing – or maybe not. Other than these examples there are very few professional applications; VR never really got beyond the point of being gimmickery.
4. Lack of OS support
OK VR headsets definitely lack support of Operating Systems. No i don’t mean that VR failed because there is no Mac OS X driver for Forte VFX-1 – actually you can use VR headsets with many Operating Systems – the problem here is just that they are used as a screen replacement not really as a device. As stated already in point #7 we know VR headsets were never invented as a simple screen replacement that is meant to be glued to your forehead – the whole “gag” of the technology is stereoscopy. Seeing your Windows desktop in a headset is neat – but as the saying goes “The goggles – they do nothing”. What would really have helped to develop VR was a VR desktop. If you ask me, it would not have cost much to make Windows 95 include headset support – a 360 degree desktop manager that supports head tracking and stereoscopic window handling – imagine you could zoom your windows back into the space and back to you with your mouse wheel. Keep your browsers to your front, the downloads on your right side and that annoying IM window with your mother-in-law behind you. I know there would not have been many people really making use of this, but it would have been the base VR could have grown on. We somehow missed building that base.
VR always lacked support of the big players. And if the big players came up with something it was either never released or turned out to be just a crappy TV Set without head tracking, without stereoscopy, without VGA input – and thus totally useless. Big Companies like Sony always wondered why their cool video glasses like glasstron never sold well. Seriously – who buys video glasses? People who lack a TV? Besides not being very comfortable nor practical they also were very expensive. Who buys these? Judging from advertisements only rich business men who watch movies (Porn??) on airplanes. And the fatal flaw in 1995 – there were barely any portable media players of real usability, and even if these devices came with a built in TV tuner, there is no reception 30,000 feet. Most people I know who had such Video glasses bought them because they like gimmicks, planned to use them “on the go”, did that 3 times and left them rotting in some cupboard. 15 years later, they’re on Ebay! If these companies had made some usable “real” VR headsets, VR would have had much less of this “useless gimmick” appeal.
Coming in at number two: VR headset manufacturers were quite aware that they were in a “niche” market. There was not much competition, no cheap competitors from far east and simply no one offering an awesome deal. That’s why most companies simply set price points that were way too high. They made mad money during the VR craze – and fell like a lead balloon when it was over. High margins per unit, low penetration… the market never took hold.
The worst flaw of the VR hype was that it was unable to produce an adequate number of games or a universal interface to work with games. Today you can play actually most games in stereoscopic 3D with a specific NVidia stereo driver and the appropriate graphics card and the right headset, but to be honest it’s a bit too late. Back in the days – mid 90s when it mattered – there was no standard and every headset had a handful of games supporting it and that’s it. Besides one or two forgotten obscurities there was never a “leading” VR game, some blockbuster that was based that much on VR that it actually made sense AND was fun to play with VR. Nearly all commercial games had VR support “added on top after development as a gimmick” which was neat, but it was clear that manufacturers never really made use of the possibilities VR gave. For some games the added VR support was a “gift from heaven” like for Eurofighter 2000 – a flight simulator that really made you feel like you sit in the cockpit – but for many others it either lacked key features like head tracking or simply didn’t feel like VR was useful. Games have been the key influence of PC development since the 90s. For example Microsoft’s Windows Vista was not as widespread as Microsoft intended to be – no one originally liked or wanted it. When Microsoft bribed the first game manufacturers to make their games only work on Vista, sales finally started going. If VR was a killer argument for gaming then most gamers would buy a headset.
Sidelined in early Nov. 1992, LT was moving on to bigger and better things… Virtual Reality. The VRI-LT Press Release says it all:
Virtual Reality, Inc. (Electronic Bulletin Board — VIRT) has announced today the signing of an agreement with Lawrence Taylor’s All Pro Sports Products, Inc. for the development, commercialization and worldwide marketing of virtual reality sports and entertainment games.
Somewhere I’ve got a photo of Jerry Garcia wearing a VRI head mounted display. Gotta dig through the cartons of analog images.
By the looks of its VRI-Brochure, VRI was covering all the bases. The stock listing and suits bucked the trend in the VR biz.