Virtual reality realism: Why 2016 might not be VR's big year

Three experts fail to agree on whether 2016 will be the year VR breaks through
​Is 2016 the year VR goes mainstream?
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The next 12 months for virtual reality is simply going to be huge. That's what it says in the script, at least. Facebook's Oculus Rift is set to finally launch its consumer-ready hardware in the springtime and what should follow – with all that multinational beef, social reach and global good will behind it – is the blossoming of a powerful technology finally unfolding its potential.

While Oculus is leading the charge there's a barrage of alternative VR headsets ready to surf the tide that follows. With Samsung, Google and Sony in on the gamble too, surely VR can't splutter and stutter back into obscurity like it did in the 1990s?

Of course, the second key component is the content. The screens and gloves may be in place but if there are no games to play – or more importantly, no games that work with this new and exciting medium – then VR's time in the sun might be short lived.

Fortunately content doesn't seem to be a problem; we've seen the film industry, the porn industry, videos games and even fine art already gearing up but will all of this together really mean that virtual reality will finally go mainstream in 2016? Will all of your friends have heard of Oculus Rift? Will you have wowed your parents at Christmas with their first jaunts into 360-degree digital landscapes? We think so, but don't take our word for it. Here's what some of virtual reality's most important thinkers had to say about its chances.

Nicole Stenger

VR pioneer

"To me, it's already mainstream. It's here. Particularly this Fall, I've seen that it's available to the general public over the internet with Google Cardboard, and there's a lot of 360-degree videos that are developed and broadcast over the internet. So, at this point, it's already done.

"There's already even a first VR trend which is what I'd call hyperreality. It's the reality we're used to but enhanced, so it gives you more emotions. It's the same but it's magnified. The same ingredients but pushed to the extreme. It's all about using images of reality like video. But you could look at VR as a dream world instead of reality as we know it.

"It's the same as at the beginning of cinema. You could have had dreamy computer animation-type film and people chose realism right away, like a train pulling into a railway station. So, our VR content at the moment is very mainstream for the beginning but I'm sure that will change beyond 2016.

"VR pioneer Tom Furness had predicted that there would be a winter for VR before the first wave disappeared in the early 90s. So, I went on designing in VR for all these years. I believed in it, I knew it would be back. I had no doubt that it was nothing temporary, and now it's burst out again. It's VR's springtime."

Stenger was a researching scholar at the Human Interface Technology Laboratory in Seattle in the early 90s where she created the first immersive movie, Angels, working closely with other VR pioneers such as Jaron Lanier. She continues to develop for VR and her work can be found at

Mel Slater

Professor of Virtual Environments, UCL

"Over the past two years there's been a resurgence of interest in VR that's been growing ever rapidly. Many of the concepts and ideas are being rediscovered now as if they were new. The notion of 'presence', for one, had been extensively discussed in the first wave and has received a great deal of attention in research over the past 25 years. So, many of the problems being addressed now already come with significant understanding from potential solutions from the past.

"VR did not materialise into a mass consumer product in the 1990s, nor did it change the world as expected, largely because the technology could not live up to expectations. However, it continued as a subject of research, and also has played a significant role in industry (for example, car manufacturers mocking up examples of designs in VR before ever building a physical car) and with other applications such as significant use in clinical psychology and counselling including treatment for phobias, anxiety, and post traumatic stress.

"In 2016 various companies are issuing quite high quality equipment at consumer level prices and there are lots of existing companies and start-ups working on products to take advantage of this.

"So, it's quite likely that VR will, this time, take off on a mass scale - at first in entertainment and games, but also, as is already happening, in many other applications - and its research base is extending rapidly into psychology, cognitive neuroscience, medicine, and so on.

"We should be aware of dangers. There have never been studies of the effects on people of the long-term continued use of VR on a daily basis and simulator sickness may be a problem. However, the signs are that, this time round, VR may be a success."

Mel Slater leads VR research labs both at the University of Barcelona and at UCL in London and is a specialist in what makes virtual reality work and how it's possible to build virtual environments so that people respond realistically to events within them.

Cynthia Calongne

CTU Professor in Second Life

"One of the challenges with forecasting is that a breakthrough in the comfort level and production times for VR headsets could hit the market fast. For VR to go mainstream, we need technology that senses how the body interprets movement and adjusts for it to streamline the user experience.

"As well as solving motion sickness, we need full interaction - i.e., gesture recognition, natural language recognition and a device that scans and interprets our facial and body expressions as part of that interaction process. Holding a mouse or a controller doesn't feel natural in VR, and while swiping is close, it's not what most users would do instinctively.

"VR headsets provide breath-taking experiences, and the race is on to develop compelling and cost effective solutions for widespread adoption. Will it happen in 2016? Possibly, but 2017 is more likely as the devices need software and a new paradigm for interaction within the 3D landscape."

Cynthia Calongne is a leading researcher and speaker on virtual worlds. She's a professor at Colorado Tech and Second Life and has hosted over 120 presentations and keynote addresses on virtual worlds, simulation and modeling, education, game design and research.


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