When Facebook announced it was purchasing Oculus VR for $2 billion last year, you could almost hear the crackling of keyboards around the globe.

Suspecting Facebook was onto something, media platforms were keen to jump on this news. This acquisition confirmed that virtually reality (VR) was indeed both the newest and coolest kid on the block.


VR, however, has a long and chequered history of initially igniting interest and consequently sinking, like a beleaguered battleship. As far back as the 1950s, a basic VR prototype was invented called the Sensorama. Conceived by Morton Heilig – the proclaimed “father of virtual reality” – the Sensorama was a large, cumbersome machine that played short 3D movies and stimulated other senses such as touch and smell. In 1960, Heilig also patented the Telesphere Mask, a 3D headset, but with its rudimentary applications interest in the technology quickly waned. In the decades that followed, technology companies invested heavily in VR, trying and failing to make any significant development. Now, with the 21st century ushering in sophisticated computing, an advanced prototype called Oculus Rift has been invented and has gained strident attention.


If not for Palmer Luckey’s obsession with video gaming, VR might not be hot right now.


Luckey, uninspired with engaging games on a one-dimension level, wanted to play games as though he was part of them. In the back of his parents’ garage, he began to unravel the mysteries of VR optics that had eluded so many others. His work on the Oculus Rift headset was discovered online by renowned game developer, John Carmack, who showcased the prototype at a major tech show in 2012. Riding some media hype, Luckey founded Oculus VR with Brendan Iribe and Michael Antonov, raising $2.4 million via a Kickstarter campaign. The small start up drew the attention of Facebook’s CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, and VR’s star began to rise. Since the acquisition, Facebook has announced it will be launching the Oculus Rift with an Xbox One controller for gamers in early 2016. The new Oculus Touch, which has both a right and left hand controller and is said to give users the ability to touch virtual objects, will be available later in 2016.


So what’s the big deal about VR?


Depending on who you listen to, VR is either the latest in a long list of “revolutionary” technologies or, simply experiencing another fad-like revival. Stefan Pernar from Virtual Reality Ventures was so “blown away” by the technology that in early 2014 he quit his job and founded his present day VR production and consulting company. Pernar, however, is cautious about exalting VR to revolutionary status. Rather, he believes that in the future due to its ubiquity, the technology will become as mundane as the smartphone. Pernar allowed me to experience VR for myself by test running his Gear VR headset, which is powered by slotting a Samsung smartphone in the front visor.


VR has a dream-like quality to it, in that while you know the scenes aren’t real, you feel rooted to the seemingly tangible landscapes. When I look up and down, and turn around, a seamless 3D landscape unfolds before me. To say that VR’s awe-inspiring optics is what drives its growing popularity would be to sell it short. In my view, the real power of VR is its ability to elicit such strong emotions from the wearer. For example, while standing on a virtual hill watching the sun set over rolling hinterlands, I observed my shoulders dropping and my breath slowing. In reality I was within proximity to Melbourne’s CBD, but I felt worlds away. Contrary to this, during a scene where I faced static robots wielding military arms, I felt on guard and alert. An underwater video showcasing whales in their natural habitat was simply wondrous and I began to see how VR could have many applications beyond gaming.


With VR’s ability to stimulate sensory perception, research has shown that memory recall via VR is much higher than with other models currently used in education. Imagine what classrooms of the future might look like. History students could be transported back in time to the French Revolution or across continents to the Great Pyramid of Giza. Art students could travel around the world to virtual art galleries and science students could learn about the solar system by exploring
each of its planetary landscapes. Work has already commenced on developing VR training programs for industries such as engineering, which offer not only better up take of information but safer and less expensive environments to train staff in.


We all know online shopping is already big business, but imagine taking that to the next level where shoppers can tour through virtual stores. To lessen the chance of buying clothing that doesn’t fit, fashion shoppers will have the ability to create 3D avatars with their unique measurements. Fashion designers, on the other hand, will have the option of creating virtual fashion shows where, instead of the financial outlay of producing items first, garments can be made to order. In fact, the technology is already making headway at live fashion shows overseas. At the 2014 London Fashion Week, five Topshop fans who wouldn’t normally get the opportunity to attend the event won virtual tickets to watch the show via VR headsets. Likewise fashion stalwart, Dior, has devised a headset called Dior Eyes that enables wearers to take a virtual tour backstage at the brand’s fashion shows.


Experimental applications of VR are currently being used to measure the effects it has on treating conditions such as PTSD and phobias. It’s also kicking goals in the area of pain relief. SnowWorld is a VR game where the user moves along a frozen landscape, throwing snowballs at oncoming targets. The icy virtual environment was developed as an antidote to the fiery sensation of burns and was trialed in the US to distract burns victims from the pain of having their dressings changed. Doctors unearthed some startling results with patients experiencing a lot less pain during the procedure. The technology is also being developed to allow trainee surgeons to hone their motor skills by practicing surgical procedures on virtual patients.


Moreover, it’s predicted that VR will increase business growth and customer loyalty by providing a deeper emotional experience for customers. Qantas has already piloted a VR prototype to its business class, showcasing tourist destinations such as Kakadu National Park. Following the success of the campaign, Qantas has created a 3D film on the Great Barrier Reef and Hamilton Island to further capitalise on its newest marketing platform.
In another unique branding exercise, last year Marriott Hotels in the US offered one-minute, 4D, virtual honeymoon tours of Hawaii and London via telleporter booths. The booths stimulated not only sight but also touch using heat and wind to further entice people to travel to the set destinations.


Not only will VR be instrumental in marketing destinations, this technology could potentially create a new virtual tourism industry. For example, using this technology people who are limited by financial or physical restraints will be able to travel throughout the world as a virtual tourist. Additionally, areas that are too dangerous to travel could otherwise be explored via a virtual tour. It is also predicted that sports tourism will become a popular pastime. Imagine watching the Soccer World Cup live from your loungeroom via VR. With the experience being so immersive that the roar of the crowd gives you goose bumps.


On the other hand, the technology has raised some concerns from those within the tourism industry who fear that VR will replace real travel. But rather than replace the authentic experience, virtual tourism is far more likely to work hand in hand with it. But technology will always be a field that draws its fair share of scare mongering – some substantiated, some not. Certainly one of the main criticisms of technology is its potential for overuse and the fear that this will deteriorate community engagement and values.


So, if VR in the future offers an enthralling and more lucrative alternative to reality, are we in danger of losing ourselves in it?


“Will there be an over utilisation at some point?” says Pernar. “Yes… I see two things happening. It becomes more of yourself and, therefore, becomes less intrusive. On the other hand you will have people who will over do it, but these kind of people would have abused anything in the past.”

The other criticism of VR, which is a long- standing one, is that while it has made some significant improvements recently, its potential to disappoint remains high. Perhaps this is why die-hard gamers are still conflicted over VR. What if it never measures up to the hype? Nonetheless, attitudes remain positive and tech businesses are working diligently toward advancing VR to a point where it’s adopted on mass. Until then, we can just let our imaginations run wild.


Originally published in the Touch Magazine. https://www.touchcorp.com/merchants/marketing-tools-resources/touch-magazine


Virtual Reality Ventures: www.virtualrealityventures.com.au