Picture the scene, scores of teenagers lined up excited to try out the latest VR technology. There is a real buzz – “Wow look at that headset!”, “Check out the graphics – makes you feel like you’re really there”. They are lining up to play a multi-player immersive game, where two people have to shoot each other and avoid the swooping dinosaurs. They’ve never seen anything like it before. You put on a headset and you can look all around in glorious 3D. When they reach the front of the line they have their money ready. This is way more exciting than the Commodore 64.
Hang on a minute, money? Commodore 64? I’m talking about the early 90’s – and it’s a shopping centre. Back then, 25 years ago, believe it or not, there were multi-user VR systems with head-tracking, 3D and hand-held wands. For me, at least, it was an exciting time!
Immersion is not about realism
The only problem was the hype did not match the reality. As you can see from the pictures, although the graphics were blocky, this was not the real issue. With the massive success of games like Minecraft, where the graphics are not at all realistic, it is obvious that the feeling of immersion is not a result of realistic graphics.
The headsets were bulky, and had two huge cables running out the back, connecting it to an expensive graphics computer. This meant that the VR experience was limited to a games arcades and of course payment was required. There was no chance you were going to have one of these in your lounge at home. But I don’t believe this was the reason for lack of success – after all technology always gets cheaper.
Display lag broke the feeling of immersion
The main problem with the early VR systems was the lag between moving your head and the display updating, and it was this that broke the feeling of immersion. The resulting discomfort ranged from mild nausea to full-blown sickness and headaches. This made them unusable for any length of time.
VR could have been huge … in the 90s
I believe that if the problem of display lag could have been resolved back then, VR would be ubiquitous today. Of course this is easy to say now, but back then the technology was pushed to its absolute limits. Now our understanding of what makes an entertaining, immersive environment has developed, we know that the quality of the graphics is not the limiting factor.
Today we can get an amazing VR experience
This time around, the problems have been resolved, and now we can get a great VR experience. The current VR solutions crucially give the feeling of immersion because of the fast graphics updates. Added to that the headsets are lightweight and cost a lot less than they did in the 90s!