The history of virtual reality (VR) is full of engineers who looked beyond what was possible to create a world that others couldn’t see. Today this dream world is quickly turning into a reality, but back in 1995 when I was a 4th grader, the technology was just getting started and instilled a dream built on the promise of what was to come.
I still remember my first peek into the world of VR, when one of my friends had just gotten a Virtual Boy and was eager to show it off. The Virtual Boy (for those that may have missed the extreme 1990s TV commercials) was Nintendo’s cutting-edge tabletop video game console that promised a look into the virtual world. After the longest elementary school day of my life, I rushed home, jumped on my bike, and peddled as fast as I could over to my friend’s house.
My excitement, however, was quickly muted. Have you ever watched a really bad movie that you couldn’t get out of your head? Well, that’s what VR was for me after that day. Rather than being teleported to an alternate reality, I landed in a red and black stereoscopic plane struggling through a few games of Mario’s Tennis (Figure 1). Nintendo’s early VR attempt didn’t set the world on fire, mostly due to a rushed development cycle and a very confusing marketing campaign. It did, however, plant the seed of virtual reality into the mind of the public. For the first time ever, we got a glimpse of what would one day be possible, and the wait was on.
Flash forward 20 years to the launch of the Oculus Rift: Once again a device boasted the promise of transporting its user to an alternate reality. Having been fooled once by this promise, I approached this new VR landscape with restrained expectations. I knew the technology was finally available to make good on the misguided promise of my youth, but still, I was skeptical.
My first exposure to this modern VR wave was in a crowded San Antonio conference hall at PAX South (a conference that celebrates and supports video and tabletop gaming) in 2015. This was far less intimate than my friend’s living room back in 1995, but not even that could break the wave of nostalgia that was washing over me. In that moment I was a kid again, looking to be transported to the virtual world I was promised 20 years earlier. After hours of waiting in line, it was my turn to demo the Oculus Rift. I sat down, palms sweating, heart racing, trying to temper my excitement as the volunteer at the booth talked me through how to correctly wear the VR headset.
They had us playing the alpha version of the space combat game called Eve Valkyrie. As soon as I plugged in, I was blasted into space where I had to carefully maneuver my ship to avoid the threat of being turned to stardust by space pirates. This was the VR world I had dreamt of! It finally happened—virtual reality had become tangible.
VR still has its barriers to overcome, though. High costs, inconvenient space restrictions, and a jumbled marketplace are just some of its restraints. The opportunity to get it right, however, is for the first time obtainable. The once-barren VR wasteland is now ripe with competition. Industry giants like Facebook, Sony, and Microsoft are now competing for the top spot in this emerging industry. Only time will tell what the future of VR holds or if the general public is ready to embrace it, but one thing I know is that VR is real and it’s not fooling around—not this time.