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Virtual reality: More virtual than real

3D technology popularized in science fiction remains mostly fiction

By Julie Sartain, Network World
September 24, 2012 12:06 AM ET

Network World - Remember virtual reality? The idea that science could create a virtual world of sight, sound, smell and touch was hot two decades ago, then completely fizzled out.

Slideshow: Virtual reality gets real

"VR made a huge splash in the 90s, but collapsed into near obscurity a few years later. The term VR even became a dirty word for some time, giving way to the less-hyped term immersion," says Paul Mlyniec, president of California-based Digital ArtForms.

"There's not much new happing in virtual reality," adds Brian Blau, research director of consumer technology at Gartner. "I did a bit of research on VR recently and have been working in and around VR for many years, and there just isn't much happening these days, except maybe in education and science; certainly not much happening in the consumer space."

Blau defines VR as "immersive environments where the user either wears a head mounted display that shows a completely synthetic environment, or the user is in a cave-like room where all the walls show the graphical environment, typically one that is very different from where the user is currently sitting or standing."

So, what went wrong?

Adib Ghubril, research director of semiconductors at Gartner, believes the real problem is that VR is still trying to solve a 3D problem using 2D ideas. Wall-to-wall wrap-around displays, helmets with visors that go from temple-to-temple, active goggle displays that select which frame each eye can view — none of these tackle the issue at hand, which is how to create a system that arouses the senses in the same way a natural environment does.

"Such a system must generate holograms in motion, provide multi-layered audio, compound scents, and haptic (touch) feedback. Most of these underlining technologies are still nascent and, thus, stunting the impact of VR," he says.

According to Ghubril, the goal of virtual reality technology is to enable the user to learn about or experience a target environment in a safe and controlled way that minimizes the costs associated with a hostile (battlefield), harsh (mine), specialized (cockpit ), not readily accessible (distant tourist destination), or fantastical (imaginary) surrounding.

"To my mind," Ghubril says, "There's nothing particularly hot out there in VR as I conceive it. Sure, gesture and gaze control are interesting and necessary technologies to achieve immersion, but what would be really compelling is something that stimulates all of our senses. Unfortunately, I think we are very far off from attaining that state of make believe."

But VR isn't dead either, we might look back one day and say that the re-birth of virtual reality was sparked by something that we take somewhat for granted these days: the Nintendo Wii.

Tuong H. Nguyen, principal analyst of consumer technology at Gartner, points out that the only place where VR is really happening today in terms of the consumer market is "on the gaming front."

Mlyniec argues that Nintendo's grand gamble on the Wii kicked off a wave of revived interest in motion-enabled interaction. Both Sony and Microsoft followed suit and the result has been consumer-level devices that support genuine 3D interaction. And, what used to cost $5,000, now costs $100.

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