Mention virtual reality (or VR, as it is increasingly known) and you're likely to elicit one of two responses: either utmost enthusiasm and awareness, or something along the lines of Homer Simpson yelling "Neeeeerd!" But VR deserves to occupy a more substantive niche on the mainstream public radar, and here's why.
1. VR has captured the popular imagination for a long time – and it's finally delivering
Excitement for virtual reality came to its first crest when the earliest consumer machines were introduced in the 1980s and 90s. Nintendo's Virtual Boy and various arcade and prototype systems helped establish the idea of what a VR system looks like, and inspired several movies, books, and music videos to boot. Still, their shortcomings left a campy, junky impression that's been hard to shake.
Insufficiencies are things of the past. Today's premium VR set-ups are capable, immersive, comfortable and increasingly affordable. High-end set ups like the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift allow you to use your own hands in virtual worlds and track your movement through space. While some may balk at the price tag (which starts around $1,400 if you include an entry-level gaming PC, headset and minimal accessories) the expense is dropping thanks to developments like Oculus' asynchronous spacewarp technology.
And it's even more accessible when you throw smartphone-powered VR into the mix. Samsung Gear VR has been the leader in this space. It works with Samsung's Galaxy S6 and later flagship smartphones, and costs only US$99. While mobile VR is limited (it doesn't detect anything but head rotation, and is reliant on headset buttons or third-party gamepad controllers) it's a very worthwhile entry-level foray into VR. And with Google's recent launch of the Daydream View headset ($79), mobile VR is poised for compatibility with an ever-growing number of Android phones.
Essentially, VR tech has come of age. Devices are capable, affordable and increasingly accessible.
2. The quantity and quality of games is growing by leaps and bounds
It's no secret that gamers have made up the bulk of VR early adopters. The library of high-quality games is growing. Advancements in room-scale motion and controllers mean they're more fun and all-encompassing than ever.
We've seen the most game library growth from Oculus, a Facebook-owned company that has been earmarking large amounts of cash for developers to create content. Surrounding the launch of the Touch controllers for the Rift headset, Oculus has offered some great bundled games as part of its promotional offers, including our favorite first-person shooter Dead and Buried and the engrossing spell-caster The Unspoken.
Since the Gear VR is the product of a partnership between Samsung and Oculus, the mobile VR content library is also flourishing. While the brand-new Google Daydream headset's library is nowhere near the current level of Gear's, we expect that to change as Daydream compatibility comes to more 'droids.
3. It's not just a toy, it's a medium
VR evangelists are quick to emphasize its possibilities beyond the gaming realm. Major media companies like Vice Media, The New York Times and NBC are among those currently producing VR news and documentaries.
To better visualize what that looks like, think about the 360-degree videos making their way around the web. When you view those videos in VR, you're inside them. In fact, VR filmmaking is burgeoning. It's even hit the international stage through major film festivals like Cannes, Tribeca and Sundance. Oculus' animated VR short Henry even won an Emmy.
Traditional fine art has also found a home in VR. Quill for Rift and Tilt Brush for Vive are both 3D illustration tools that let artists create and interact with the worlds that come alive through their own brushstrokes. There's also Medium, a Rift application for compelling 3D sculpting.
Clearly, VR is not limited to recreation. It's capable of great expression and creation as well.
4. It's going social
VR is often criticized for its isolating properties. Luddites are incensed at the idea of entering a fake world at the expense of leaving the real one. It's true that in most cases, you can't see the real people or environment around you, and until recently, multiplayer and community-building opportunities in VR were hard to come by.
But that is changing. VR content is offering an increasing amount of remote player interactivity, which is sure to increase alongside headset popularity. Furthermore, companies and developers are pushing social integration.
At the Oculus Connect conference last October, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg asserted that virtual reality is the next major computing platform and demoed a conceptual VR social space. Oculus also announced Avatars and Rooms, forthcoming tools for VR users to create custom likenesses of themselves and interact with others. The third-party app Altspace VR already provides similar opportunities across platforms.
5. VR makes bona fide strides against complex modern problems
Bravemind is a VR application designed to help military veterans that served in Iraq and Afghanistan battle post-traumatic stress disorder
What do arachnophobia, fear of public speaking and PTSD have in common? They're all being combated with novel VR applications. Due to its immersive properties, VR is uniquely suited to provide safe and accessible exposure therapy, a technique that's been proven to help patients keep situational fears and anxiety at bay.
VR technology is also pushing forward several other aspects of healthcare. It's being investigated for its applications in fitness, as a surgical training tool, and even in pain management. One team of researchers was able to prove virtual reality can favorably alter the perception of pain.
By extension, VR has a number of educational opportunities beyond healthcare, since it lends itself so well to engrossing storytelling and the illustration of complicated visual concepts. In fact, education is one of the first forays that Google made with its inexpensive Cardboard headset: Google Expeditions are a fairly affordable way to bring a classroom of children anywhere in the world.
6. Big businesses are driving its growth
Since the consumer VR landscape is still very new, it's easy to think of as an anything-goes, individual-driven environment. While some aspects of that mythos do hold water, make no mistake: Big business is embracing VR in a huge way.
The industry itself is worth billions. Facebook purchased Oculus for $2 billion in 2014. It was a scrappy wunderkind-founded startup at the time. SteamVR, the company behind the HTC Vive's operating system, is the creation of the Valve Corporation, which was estimated to be worth over $3 billion in 2014. That was before the HTC Vive was even released. With Google's entry into VR (through both Daydream and its mobile augmented reality effort, Tango) as well as Sony's (with the lackluster PlayStation VR) the cumulative industry worth becomes mind boggling.
Beyond being backed by big money, non-tech corporations are embracing VR as a branding and e-commerce tool. Want to see how specific clothing items come together, or what it's like to sit in a car you're considering? VR is enabling a level of try-before-you-buy that's never been seen before. It's been embraced by conglomerates like Swedish furniture giant Ikea, the Australian retailer Myer, as well as automakers like GM and Audi.
Furthermore, business meetings in VR are closer than you might think. VR is not just a large industry, an entertainment space, and a potential marketing tool. It's also a potential solution for improved remote conferencing and the presentation of highly complicated 3D concepts.
Put VR on your radar
It's safe to say that VR should not be written off as a science fiction trope, a mere recreational vessel, or a sector of technology that's far off into the future. It's already a valuable tool, a revolutionary interface, and a new computing platform. You don't need to plunk down cash for a complete gaming system or even try it for yourself to recognize its sheer potential.
If you'd like to dig into more hands-on perspective, New Atlas' reviews of the current top VR headsets, games, and experiences are a great place to start.