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January 5, 2016 Virtual reality is finally becoming a reality

This article is part of a series called Technology by Compass.

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If you follow tech news, you’ve probably heard a lot of blather about the imminent release of a bunch of virtual reality (VR) peripherals for your computer.

Sure, it sounds exciting! But what is virtual reality, exactly?

The Virtuality 1000CS. The 90s were a terrible time.

The Virtuality 1000CS. The 90s were a terrible time.

In essence, “virtual reality” is a pretty simple concept: computer systems replace your perception of the real world with a virtual one, thanks to a bunch of sensory inputs (visual, audio, and occasionally haptic feedback).

This is often contrasted with “augmented reality” (AR); whereas virtual reality replaces the real world with one that is entirely virtual, augmented reality overlays a virtual world on the real one. It does this by taking a live video feed of the external world and then supplementing it with computer-generated sensory input.

Today, AR applications and devices are pretty ubiquitous; even ignoring the failed Google Glass and the imminent Microsoft HoloLens. As I wrote in an article in the The Conversation:

Already there is a huge number of AR apps, most of which have been built for mobile devices. One such is Layar, which synchronises camera input with data from Google Maps in order to let you see the world with the digital marginalia built in. […]

Some of these AR programs are genuinely remarkable, and carry with them the seeds of a changing paradigm. The new version of Google Translate, for example, can perform real-time spoken-word translation, as well as translating written words almost instantaneously. The Babel fish from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy gets one step closer.

Virtual reality, meanwhile, has languished in relative obscurity. Despite sporadic attempts to introduce the technology into living rooms for decades (since the Virtuality 1000CS was released in 1991), costs and technological hurdles have historically restricted virtual reality hardware to industry, hardcore hobbyists, and neckbeards.

Even in the last few years, virtual reality systems have languished compared to their sexy AR cousins: even though we have the technology, they’ve still been too big, or too expensive, or too difficult to integrate into everyday life.

Nonetheless, there have been some important advances, thanks to both improvements in processing power and sensory fidelity, with higher quality vision, audio, and force feedback technology. Some of these later attempts have also been genuinely impressive… if not exactly portable, as in the video above.

However, all of this is about to change, with the release of the Oculus Rift and Valve’s HTC Vive: two new peripherals that promise to finally introduce virtual reality in our living rooms. The whole thing is just ridiculously exciting: the Vive is due to be released in April this year, and Oculus Rifts will be available for pre-order from the sixth of January!

Yes, that high pitched squeal of excitement came from me. Yes, I am ashamed.

Decades after the idea of VR entered the public consciousness, it might finally – finally – become a reality. My body is ready.

This article is part of a series called Technology by Compass.

Read the series >

Ryan Wittingslow
is the editor of A•STAR