We’ve been hearing about the potential of Virtual Reality for years, how it’s going to change the world. We’ve actually been hearing about it for longer than you might think. The first serious foray into complete sensory immersion was made as early as 1962, with Morton Heilig’s Sensorama, but Virtual Reality has been with us in spirit far longer than that. Stanley G Weinbaum’s short story ‘Pymalion’s Spectacles’ is widely recognised as one of the first works of science fiction to explore virtual reality, as early as 1935.
So if the technology has been building since the ‘60s, and the hype for even longer, why hasn’t Virtual Reality taken over the worlds of work, play and, if The Matrix is to be believed, everything in between?
It’s been a problem of technology, timing and, as always, money. There are three key pieces to the puzzle that have to come together perfectly to allow the revolution to truly begin. These are:
- The Headset. The immersive portal into the digital world.
- The Software. The world you’re portalling into.
- The Inputs. The tools to navigate this world.
Historically improvement in each of these areas has come in lurches not bounds. Until very recently, there was no unified increase across all ports. That’s about to change; but we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
Let’s start with the headset.
Morton Heilig’s aforementioned ‘Sensorama’ was far from perfect. It was the size of a pinball machine, looked like an X-Ray machine, and cost as much as both. In today’s money, the Sensorama sold for $50,000, putting it out of the realms of possibility for even the richest people, but the idea was there. Yes it was huge and ugly, the picture quality was bad even by the standards of the day, and a large amount of the ‘immersion’ came from wafting strange smells into the users face, but the idea, the idea of fooling the brain into forgetting where it was, was born.
Morton Heilig’s Sensorama (embed!)
The main problem, clearly, was the size and price of the sensorama, Heilig himself knew this and even went so far as to design and patent the ‘Telesphere Mask’, what would now more commonly be referred to as a Head Mounted Display (HMD). Unfortunately, Heilig wasn’t able to get much further than that, and certainly wasn’t able to make a consumer-focused version of his headset.
The next steps were, as ever, made by the military. In 1961, two Philco engineers, Comeau & Bryan, developed a head-mounted display which moved a camera as the wearer’s head moved, allowing them to ‘look around’ a scene miles away. It was clunky, military, and insanely expensive, but it was also the first time people had used the movement of someone’s head as a virtual navigation tool.
The term Virtual Reality itself wasn’t coined until 1987, when Jaron Lanier, founder of the visual programming lab (VPL) used it to describe their research and the development of their headsets called, the ‘Eyephone’. Seriously. Lanier was also one of the first to combine this with ‘gloves’, which would later pave the way the development of haptic feedback. Despite these strides, and now finally the name, the devices were still clunky, primitive, and expensive. The EyePhone 1 and more advanced Eyephone HRX (I can’t not hear Apple crossovers now) sold for $9400 and $49,000 respectively. Clearly, more work needed to be done before our dreams of electric sheep would become reality. That work is actually super interesting, and if you want to read more you can do so here and here, but we’re going to jump forwards a little.
The 90’s brought with them a wave of ever cheaper consumer-focused goods. The Atari’s of the 80’s became the Playstations of the 90’s, selling between them hundreds of millions of units. The wave of affordable personal home computing had begun. Attempts to popularise virtual reality in this space focused on reducing the price, and to that end limiting the features. This market testing phase is what led to things like the Nintendo Virtual Boy, and the SEGA VR-1, which aimed to get inexpensive ‘VR’ headsets into the hands of as many people as possible. Despite vastly limited features, Nintendo managed to get their price point down to the equivalent of $300.
Virtual Reality headsets had found their price point, but the technology was nothing like what we’d imagined. Films like Tron and The Matrix promised more, but the technology available was stuck at this level until the big change came, and the start of our story. In 2012 the Oculus Rift raised $2.4 Million on Kickstarter. This was the beginning of the modern wave of VR, and was one of the major developments which inspired our founder, Jack, to start Massless. You can read more about that here.
Oculus had finally combined a palettable price point with believable graphics, and a pleasing form factor, spurring unprecedented public interest. Two years later they were bought by Facebook for $2 Billion, the first serious modern investment in the technology. They were joined by HTC with the Vive, and Sony who unironically named their VR research and development platform ‘Project Morpheus’.
7 years of intense development later, and 2019’s Oculus Quest has sold out in America until next year. Public interest, price, and the available technology have finally come together. (More on that later!).
Don’t worry, this bit’s quicker.
Software and headsets were married for most of VR’s journey. The ‘software’ in the 60’s was nothing of the sort, just a video on a loop. That was until 1968 when Ivan Sutherland developed the amazingly named ‘Sword of Damocles’, which for the first time combined a head mounted display with basic wire frame shapes. From that point on, VR headsets were designed as portals to their specific world, with the accompanying software made specifically for the limitations of their headsets and expected to die with them.
That was it for a long time. Software which plodded just behind the available technology of the day due to a smaller market share and incredibly specific hardware requirements. It came and went with each iteration of the headset. That was the standard until Valve (the company behind the games behemoth Steam), opened up their hardware interface to the world in 2015. OpenVR allowed anyone to develop software for any headset, meaning that similarly democratised game development platforms like Unity and Unreal could run just as well on Oculus as they could on HTC.
This innovative leap allowed VR as a
concept to stop being tied to a single
purpose – watching films, gaming,
training, and start embodying its full
potential – all of them. The
uncertain feeling out of the market by
the unhappy marriage of headsets and
software is over. Both have now come to
the point where they can act as a
reliable baseline, allowing developers
to create apps for ever more specific
and useful purposes. SteamVR has
exploded into the gaming world, allowing
new immersive experiences to be explored
than ever before.
VR is already finding incredible uses in industry, from training to immersive marketing experiences, which we talk about more in other blogs on our site, and apps like Gravity Sketch, Tiltbrush and our own Massless Studio are pushing the limits of what’s possible in design and creativity, so what’s missing?
The future looks bright, but there’s still a big piece of the puzzle we haven’t spoken about. The input. The tools you use to interact with this ever widening virtual world.
People have been experimenting with input devices since the 80’s. Mattel’s Power Glove was used as early as 1985 to train astronauts, but it was felt that they were too primitive and hard to use for the general public. It turns out that haptics are hard, tricking your hands into believing they’re in the virtual is far harder than tricking your eyes, it seems.
So people stopped trying for a while and relied on game controllers, seeing the VR headset as simply a wraparound screen, that you interact with like you would a computer or a playstation. This frustrating period sapped Virtual Reality of its main draw – interactivity. What is the point of being able to look around something if you can’t move it intuitively
Recent advances in tracking technology allowed us to bring movement back into play, the Oculus Touch and Valve Index are both satisfying and relatively liberating ways to track the basic positions of your hands in space, but they still rely on game controller push buttons, and don’t feel at all like you’re really in the virtual world. Attempts to successfully track hands themselves have usually ended up in disappointment, the promise of devices like the Leap Motion controller never quite lived up to expectations.
We look the best current input devices available, but most of them still feel leagues behind. That gap between us and the virtual world, the gap that felt so strong when we had to plug into a giant machine like the Sensorama, or remain tied to the desk with the Virtual Boy, is largely gone, so why does touching this world still feel wrong? And why is it so expensive?
For the same reason that it took so long for the software to democratise. For 90% of its history, VR software, headsets and devices have been geared towards a specific goal. It’s only in the last few years that we’ve been able to see the potential of VR as a platform to experience a variety of things, including gaming, including creation. Where the headsets and the software need to be broad enough to allow for all of these different realms to exist, the tools – like our tools in the real world – need to be specific to the task at hand.
Enter the Massless Pen. Affordable and intuitive. Rather than relying on the layout of a game controller, or attempting to track hands themselves like the leap motion (watch this space), Massless have taken the actions you already use to draw and translate those to the virtual world. You already know how to draw with a pencil, write with a pen, paint with a paintbrush, sculpt with a palette knife, all you need is something that lets you do that virtually.
Drawing with a game controller feels like painting with boxing gloves, and makes about as much sense as gaming with a pencil. Massless takes the barriers to creation away with an input device that works intuitively, turning your natural strokes, twists and flicks into creativity. Advances like this are what will herald the next generation of VR, and allow it to reach its potential. Apple brought personal computing into the mainstream by making their products a joy to use. In the same way, companies like Massless are pioneering the popular uptake of VR by making the transition effortless.
Virtual Reality is finally taking over. The market size is set to double year on year. With people developing specific programs for specific needs, and using the right tools for the right problem, VR is set to leap-frog traditional monitors and computers as the standard way to interact with the virtual world.
Massless are pioneering the development of new technology to help VR reach its potential. Our flagship product, the Massless Pen, is crowdfunding through Indiegogo in early 2020. To find out more, visit https://massless.io/crowdfunding-3d-vr-pen/