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The democratisation of virtual reality (VR)

Many of the gadgets we now take for granted were foreseen in works of speculative science fiction. And if they did already exist in the real world, their cost made them accessible only to institutions and companies with vast research budgets, or private individuals of considerable wealth with a penchant for adventure, such as Richard Branson and his round-the-world ballooning.

Fortunately, as with other emerging technologies such as drones, the passion and vision of a few can sometimes turn an idea into reality. The founder of Oculus, Palmer Luckey, is a great example of an enthusiast who vehemently believed in VR; what started out as a garage home project is now a multibillion-dollar company. Despite the drive of VR enthusiasts, affordable hardware has been a major issue for the past few decades.

What has driven down the prohibitive costs of producing Head Mounted Displays (HMDs) in recent years – and what has allowed for the first generation of powerful consumer versions – has largely been components developed for smartphones and tablets, allowing for cheaper and more lightweight high-density displays.

VR is finally becoming affordable

It is the increasing affordability of VR which is causing its democratisation. Whereas in the past only certain laboratories and universities had a VR offering, this is all likely to change. Headsets which might have previously cost $50,000 (£35,000) are now available for $500 (£350). Dr Andrew Glennerster at the University of Reading said, 'Recent developments in VR raise the prospect that high quality VR will soon be within the reach of most researchers in the field. With the acquisition of VR startup Oculus by Facebook for $2bn (£1.4bn), and increased interest from companies such as Sony, Samsung, HTC, Raser, and Google, it appears highly likely that VR will become a mass-market commodity.'

Beyond academic research, there is the potential expansion of VR treatments for medical conditions. Many hospitals have been using HMDs like the Oculus Rift to successfully treat individuals with PTSD for a number of years, allowing patients to relive and experience traumatic events in an immersive environment as part of their recall therapy. Companies such as Swedish pioneers Brighter are using a VR dome and bicycle to take elderly patients on gentle virtual rides through their childhood neighbourhoods. This is to help sufferers with dementia and other cognitive-related illnesses a safe environment to get 'out' and about, an idea so inspired that it has caught the attention of Sweden’s Queen Silvia.

Much of what has permitted laboratories and medical centres to adopt early developmental VR HMDs has been the open-source software approach for products such as the Oculus Rift. Oculus and others well remember the failure of VR in the 1990s and are wise to promote the easy development of rich content before the technology is made more widely available. This has also been an added boon for universities, and in the B2B space, companies such as Attensi have realised the potential for training and retail interactions, and currently offer VR didactic software/hardware for businesses.

VR in the mainstream

What could be the biggest mass market for VR is education. In the novel Ready Player One, Ernest Cline writes of a dystopian future where students can learn in a virtual classroom to save them from a dangerous physical journey through a hazardous wasteland. Moreover, it gives teachers the added bonus of being able to silence students at the touch of a button, making behavioural issues a thing of the past, and gives students the ability to mute bullies. Google, always at the forefront of new technology, currently runs a programme called Google Expeditions, where dozens of GearVR HMDs are taken into schools across the world. Students are then guided on tours of the bottom of the ocean, and across other incredible landscapes.

The importance of VR is illustrated by how it is starkly differentiated from other forms of media: the individual no longer sees something, they experience it. Academics such as Dr Matthew Nicholls, a colleague of Dr Glennerster at the University of Reading, has developed a virtual map of ancient Rome, drawing on sources as wide as surviving ruins, mosaics, paintings, written accounts, and even images on coins. It allows Dr Nicholls to not just speak of ancient Rome, but to take his students on virtual tours of the streets of the Empire as it was in its heyday. Largely a personal labour of love, the project has been so successful that TV companies and even game developers have taken an interest in his work and adopted it for their own endeavours.

When the system requirements for the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive were announced, many commentators demurred that the required PC hardware specs were prohibitively expensive for the majority of gamers, requiring many to upgrade to a $500 (£350) GFX card or completely replace their system. AMD soon to be released a GFX card – the RX480 – which is VR-ready at the fraction of the cost of existing top-end hardware.

The commercial availability of VR marks the beginning of what can be considered a new epoch, where democratised VR will empower and inspire the young, old, students, researchers, and even the everyday consumer.

Jonathan Wagstaff, UK and Ireland Country Manager, CONTEXT (opens in new tab)