The Boom in VR is No Tech Fad

By Kaitlin Liebling

I stand on the lava planet of Mustafar, suspended high above its surface on an old and rusting bridge. The heat from the boiling lava below warms my face as I scan the rocky and hostile terrain for any sign of movement. Having successfully infiltrated the Imperial base, my brother and I are attempting to flee with the confidential plans.

Blaster in hand, I adopt a ready stance, fearing that our pursuers may still be on our tail. Sure enough, I feel the vibration of a bolt hitting my shoulder. I snap my head up and pick out the stormtrooper that has sniped me from afar. Dropping behind the barricade in front of me, I quickly pull the trigger and shoot back, hitting him square in the chest and causing him to fall into the lava below.

Taking a breath, I turn to my brother beside me to discuss our next move. But instead of looking at me, his eyesight is fixed upon a point behind my position. I whirl around just in time to see Darth Vader ignite his lightsaber, accompanied by a sinister throaty breath.

I watch as Vader menacingly stalks toward us, dark cape swishing behind. Desperately, my brother and I fire bolt after bolt, but Vader casually sweeps them all away with flicks of his red lightsaber. As he slowly moves toward us, I take the tiniest step backward. Neither I nor my brother have any idea how to defeat one of the most iconic villains of all time. Our bolts are useless in comparison to Vader’s power.

To my relief, our getaway ship finally arrives and lands directly between us and Vader, cutting off his advance. My brother and I hurry on board and take a seat as the ship takes off, leaving a furious Sith far behind. As we glance around the ship, a droid congratulates us on the success of our reconnaissance mission and sends the rebel craft into the safety of hyperspace.

I’m able to relax for the first time, and sit quietly enjoying the beauty of the stars and galaxies whizzing by outside the window. I’m slightly overwhelmed by the surrealness of being inside my own personal Star Wars movie, and I wish it would go on forever. And then my vision dims as the screen goes black.

I reluctantly take off my virtual reality headset to find that the amazing view of space I had just enjoyed is in actuality nothing more than a whitewashed wall. The lava’s warmth was in reality heat lamps, the blaster shot I’d taken was only a vibration in the provided rumble vest, and the sulfur I had smelled was nothing more than an artificial scent pumped into the lava room.

You see, I had just experienced one of the most advanced virtual reality simulations in the world. Created by a company called VOID, Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire is a ‘hyper-reality’ experience. This means it was designed to be walked through, so when I took a step in real life, I also took a step in the virtual world. When I reached out to touch the wall of the ship, there was actually a physical wall there. The magic of VR painted the plain white wall with spaceship decor and windows overlooking the stars.

Also, when I stretched out my hand to grab a blaster from a rack seen through my headset, my fingers touched and grabbed a physical weapon there in real life. Everything seen in the virtual Star Wars realm corresponded to something physical in VOID’s walk-through room.

The inclusion of these physical sensations fooled some primal part of my brain. The rational, thinking portion of my brain knew, of course, that a digital Vader couldn’t possibly hurt me. But this didn’t stop me from getting nervous when a black, masked, and menacing Vader began stepping toward me.

The experience felt real to my senses of smell, sound, sight, and touch. The power of VR had, at least partially, transported me into an alien universe. It was an amazing feeling- one that promises a bright future for virtual reality technology.

Past, Present, and Future of VR Tech

An old-fashioned stereoscope. Picture courtesy of Laura Thomas.


The concept of virtual reality has been around since the invention of the stereoscope in 1838, but the rapid development of the technology within the past 6 years is truly striking. An advanced VR simulation such as VOID’s Secrets of the Empire would not have been technically possible even a few years ago.

One man almost single-handedly sparked the recent VR boom: Palmer Luckey, the founder of Oculus. In 2012, Luckey was a genius 19-year-old with an interest in virtual reality. A Kickstarter campaign provided him with $2.4 million, enough to fund the development of his company’s first publicly available headset: the Oculus Rift.

Released in 2016, the $600 Rift is costly and cumbersome, meaning most of its buyers are hardcore gaming and tech enthusiasts rather than the general public. Yet despite the Rift’s ticket price, interest and awareness of virtual reality have exploded thanks to Luckey’s achievement. A report conducted by Nielsen found that in 2016, 28 percent of survey respondents had heard of at least one VR device. By 2017, the number had nearly doubled: 51 percent of those surveyed could name a specific headset.

Though Oculus started the VR trend, other competitors soon began developing their own version of the Rift. Some, like HTC Vive, sought to follow Oculus’ example and create the highest quality headset possible. Both the Vive and Rift are tethered (attached to a powerful computer by cables) with sensitive head-tracking and motion controls. These extra perks mean their headsets cost somewhere between $400 and $1,000.

Other companies, such as Google and Samsung, represent a different category of VR headsets. This type utilizes smartphones that slide into a slot along the headset’s front, rather than a screen built into the headset itself. This reduces the quality and realism of the VR experience, but it also makes headsets like Google’s Daydream and Samsung’s Gear VR hundreds of dollars cheaper than the Vive or Rift.

Companies investing in this second type of headset have perhaps done a better job than Oculus at bringing virtual reality into the public consciousness. For example, Google’s Cardboard headset, released in 2014, exposed millions to virtual reality for the first time. Made of actual cardboard, the headset was not much more than a stereoscope that showed video as well as pictures. But the price (often less than $5) made VR readily accessible to anyone for the first time.

The VR boom in recent years is also seen through the statistics. In 2014, when Cardboard was first released, about 200,000 people had tried VR. By 2018, only four years later, 171 million people had experienced some form of virtual reality. With companies such as VOID, Oculus, Google, and Samsung allowing millions to experience quality virtual reality through their headsets, that number will only continue to grow.

Prospects look bright for the companies hoping to profit off this trend. Statistica reports that the global virtual reality market is expected to grow from 27 billion in 2018 to almost 210 billion by 2022. In the same period, revenue from virtual reality software is expected to increase by a stunning 3000%.

But that estimated growth will only occur if VR companies continue to hold the public’s attention with the rapid development of their tech. Realizing this fact, many of these companies are actively looking toward the future of virtual reality and promoting new technological achievements in the field.

For example, one of the most recent changes was the release of the Oculus Go headset this year. While the Go does not have quite the processing power or resolution of the Rift, it is untethered and does not require an expensive computer to run. It is, therefore, Oculus’ first relatively affordable headset, launching at just under $200.

Magic Leap One, another VR company, is planning to release cutting-edge augmented-reality glasses in the near future. Earlier this month, the business unveiled ‘Mica’, a computed-generated assistant (like Siri or Alexa) that users will be able to interact with inside a 3D virtual world. Mica is extremely realistic; in tests, people smiled when Mica did and yawned when she yawned. Other companies, like HTC Vive and Google, are currently researching and developing more realistic VR technology as well.

Concerns Surrounding VR Technology

While many see the progression of virtual reality technology as an exciting new development, some worry about potential dangers. VR has been proven to cause loss of spatial awareness, leading some people to crash into physical walls not seen in their helmet. If worn for too long, the headsets can also cause eye soreness or nausea. Both Oculus and HTC Vive recommend a 10-15 minute break after every 30 minutes of virtual reality use to mitigate these risks.

Sci-fi books and movies offer more apocalyptic reasons to be cautious about virtual reality. For example, the recent Steven Spielberg film Ready Player One portrays a futuristic earth where virtual reality has become amazingly advanced. Everyone spends long hours in a simulated realm in this alternate 2045. ‘Real’ life, with its social interactions and business deals, happens inside the virtual world of the Oasis. People avoid the physical world as much as possible, hoping to escape from their troubles by entering a realm where they can be anyone and do anything.

Is this bad? Wade Watts, Ready Player One’s main character, certainly grows to think so. The main lesson of the movie cautions against virtual reality’s potential to envelop lives and praises the inherent value of real-life social interactions. After gaining control of the Oasis at the end of the movie, Watts purposefully blocks access to it for a few days a week to promote people’s greater involvement in their everyday lives.

While such books and movies portray a virtual reality much more advanced than the one of today, they do offer a valid caution for the future. Will we end up in a world like that seen in Ready Player One, where life happens more online in a virtual world than in the light of day? I don’t think so. But I do believe that as VR continues to boldly advance in graphics and sound we must remain vigilant.

Virtual reality may someday provide an escape, in the same way watching a TV show or playing a video game does today. But we cannot let a virtual world, no matter how lifelike, replace what is real.