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“Virtual reality will revolutionize the way we live. It lets you travel to places you’ve never been and see things you’ve never seen and do things you’ve never done, without ever leaving the room.”
That’s what a news report said about virtual-reality technology … in 1991. Back then, if you wanted to try VR, you went to the local arcade, stepped into a circular pod and put on a heavy, ugly headset. Then you whipped your head around and flailed your arms for three minutes to view a completely unrealistic-looking environment or shoot wonky-moving aliens. It was expensive to play, the graphics weren’t particularly good and, if you were unlucky, you got a case of nausea after taking off the headset. It wasn’t surprising that VR wound up as much a fleeting 1990s fad as parachute pants.
But VR’s capabilities may finally be catching up to the 26-year-old hype. Programmers can create better-looking worlds, whether they’re computer-generated or based on a real-life environment (museums have set up VR tours for students who live nowhere near the museum). Anyone can have a low-end VR experience using almost any type of smartphone and a specially designed cardboard box. Plop the phone in the box, put the box up to your face and, voilà, 360-degree views.
Unlike Virtual Reality 1.0, this time many of the applications are geared toward the business world. “Executives are finding a wide range of value in VR, and that includes applications for virtual boardrooms, medical or auto simulations, and even virtual presentations where a product shows up on a table in an augmented way to really enhance the exhibition,” says Stephanie Llamas, head of VR/AR strategy at the market research firm SuperData Research. This spring, mega-retailer Walmart said it will expand VR training to its 200 employee-training centers this year.
Sales of VR-related tech are expected to take off. According to SuperData Research, sales of VR headsets have jumped 79 percent year over year to reach $1.5 billion in 2016. By the end of 2017, that number is expected to increase to $3.6 billion. Individual VR headsets are considerably lighter and cheaper than they were 26 years ago, too. It still isn’t for everyone (nausea can still be a problem for some users), but individuals who want to try immersive VR have an assortment of gadgets from which to choose.
The Sony PlayStation VR headset requires that you also own the PlayStation 4 game console but provides a fully immersive experience. You’ll find yourself jolted into a world of whimsical graphics and realistic motion tracking. Just be sure to keep an object-free safety zone around your range of motion; when you’re pointing, say, a special controller for the game “Farpoint” into your VR landscape, you risk unintentionally swinging at nearby furniture or even at people. Once the game starts, the pace moves rather quickly, sometimes to the point of inducing feelings of motion sickness. “If I play for more than 45 minutes or so, I get a headache,” admits the Sony PlayStation VR rep at the Best Buy in Cherry Hill, N.J. (Sony declined to comment.)
If you’re aiming for top-of-the-line VR, consider the HTC Vive. The system, considered by many to be the most immersive, includes a headset, motion controllers and external sensors to outfit a virtual room. Just make sure you have a powerful computer handy; the Vive links to a computer, rather than a game console.
If you’re in search of a lower-priced VR system that can provide some fun during business travel or allows you to outfit a host of employees with a headset, a mobile VR system could be the way to go. Google Daydream View is surprisingly comfortable and runs on the Android mobile operating system. However, it lacks many VR apps and it’s currently compatible only with Google’s Pixel and Pixel XL phones, along with a few other select smartphones. (Google assures that more phones will support the headset in the future.)
A better bet for mobile VR could be the Samsung Gear VR. Its imagery doesn’t compare to the fully immersive experience and high-resolution graphics of the Sony or HTC headsets. However, Samsung’s gear is easily transportable—all you need is a Samsung smartphone. After positioning the headset, you sit back in your chair and escape into a journey that catapults you through an exquisite 3-D sky. Soaring through the colorful swirls of Vincent van Gogh’s “Starry Night” painting, you take in the beauty and feel at ease.
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