After decades of speculation, anticipation, hype, and disappointment, is 2020 virtual reality’s breakout year? As someone who studies the psychology and ergonomics of virtual and augmented technologies, I’ve long known the key to mass adoption lies in a positive user experience, which virtual reality is now poised to deliver.
Early research on the latest devices shows that the VR technologies of today have made significant progress on the fundamental comfort and usability challenges that frustrated previous attempts to commercialize the technology.
Virtual reality has inspired such fervent interest and debate partly because the fundamental building blocks of the technology have existed since the late 60s. The challenge of investors, developers, and engineers has been to transform that fundamental technology into a positive user experience and a commercial success.
The early iterations of virtual reality were expensive, stationary, and did not leave users wanting more. The first computerized head-mounted display, created in 1968 by Ivan Sutherland, was so heavy that it needed to be suspended from the ceiling with a mechanical arm — a clear limit to commercial use cases and widespread adoption. However, that did not stop the continued development of flight simulators and other stationary uses.
Nearly 30 years later, Nintendo launched the first commercial VR product for the mass market. In 1995, Gameboy released “The Nintendo Virtual Boy,” marketed as the first ever portable 3D console. Users were quick to gripe that the devices were uncomfortable, the graphics were disappointing, and the games were boring.
These examples demonstrate the dual challenges of creating mass-market VR experiences. Bulky hardware and unsatisfying software experiences stunted the industry up until the mid 2000s, but recent advances on both fronts are reason to be optimistic about the potential for virtual reality in this decade.
In the 21st century, lightweight, high-quality screens and advances in microchip and cloud-computing technology have freed VR from the mechanical arm ceiling suspension of the 60s, leading to the untethered devices of today.
While specific numbers are hard to come by, Oculus’ powerful untethered headset, the Oculus Quest, sold out over the holidays and is facing a wait time if ordered through the website today. These initial indicators foreshadow what is to come with further technological breakthroughs that reduce the weight and cost while improving the graphics and processing power of head-mounted-devices.
As hardware reaches more consumers, VR developers are creating experiences designed to ensure they do not disrupt the visual and vestibular systems that maintain balance and coherence when moving. VR developers of today are incorporating many of the lessons learned from the past 20 years to design VR for safety and comfort, leaving users free to focus on the immersive experience without disruption.
Designers are developing clever strategies to improve those aspects, like creating fun and immersive experiences without motion, limiting the number of scene changes, emphasizing forward movement, and implementing visual cues to guide users through an experience.
It is no coincidence that one of the most popular VR games to date, Beat Saber, employs several of these attributes. In it, the point of view and horizon is fixed while objects move towards the player. Instead of moving a user through an intricate world or attempting fast-paced combat, Beat Saber created a thrilling and enjoyable experience through design that avoids some of the challenges faced by more intricate and layered experiences. Beat Saber can be picked up and enjoyed by almost anyone, but there are several other uses of VR that buttress the case for mass adoption.
Beyond gaming, VR solutions are being deployed across sectors of the economy that will expose more users to the technology. One of the most promising examples is the use of VR to address pain management. Recently, a New York mother gave birth with the assistance of VR designed to mitigate pain.
Another flourishing field of VR is education. In the classroom and in corporate training programs across the country, VR allows schools and businesses to simulate critical subject matter and achieve higher levels of engagement. A study conducted at Penn State found students who trained in VR could accomplish a task twice as fast as students who used traditional computer programs.
Many commentators have framed the issue of VR adoption as a chicken and egg scenario: device makers want an array of compelling content options to convince users to make the purchase, but developers need a dedicated set of users to develop show-stopping experiences. The hardware and software-based advances of 2020 may have enough momentum to break VR out of the hype cycle and into the mass market.Guest Post