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The Layman’s Guide To Virtual Reality

So many companies, so many technologies. Who can keep it all straight? We can! Here's a plainspeak FAQ to get you up to speed.

[Top photo: Flickr user Sergey Galyonkin]

Oculus. Facebook. Samsung. Microsoft. Sony. Google. Viewmaster. Virtual reality is coming, but it’s a remarkably confusing market, filled with dozens of players, all fighting a war for your face, because the winner will stake a claim on the next era of computing, entertainment, and social networking.

But hold up a second. You’re here because you got lost somewhere between watching Lawnmower Man and the last Matrix movie. That’s alright. Let’s hash this whole thing out in a make-believe Q&A.

Flickr user Sergey Galyonkin

What is virtual reality?
It’s really just immersive software. You know how your phone is a tiny screen that you sometimes ignore? Virtual reality is pretty much the opposite. It uses a headset (you know, a big pair of glasses) that fills your entire field of view with an image. You turn your head left, you see left. Turn your head right, you see right. In current incarnations, all content is presented in 3-D, too.

Okay, but that’s an old idea, right? So why is everyone talking about it now?
It is old! It’s super old. Decades old. 1955 old.

But there are two reasons it’s taken off today with the consumer market in mind:

First, the necessary technologies have just gotten small and cheap enough—and that’s all because of the hundreds of millions of smartphones out there today. Smartphones have brought us the super sharp displays that are required to put a screen just inches from someone’s eyeballs without looking pixelated, and they also lowered prices on once-specialized components like accelerometers, which can track head movements and other stuff.

Second, Kickstarter happened. A company called Oculus VR built a prototype virtual reality headset in a garage, then put it on Kickstarter. The Internet went nuts. The company got a lot of funding. And then, out of nowhere, Facebook bought Oculus for $2 billion!

Why would Facebook buy a virtual reality headset maker?!?
Because Mark Zuckerberg sees the future of Facebook as a "metaverse"—that’s like a social network where we all walk on virtual streets rather than tweeting text at one another, or maybe the first billion-person video game.

Whoa.
I know. Wait until your grandma crashes your first metaverse kegger.

Got it. So is anyone else making headsets other than Oculus?
Yes. A lot of companies are. And this is where it gets complicated.

Okay, NP, I’m gonna close this tab then.
Wait wait! Not that complicated. I think you can distill the whole of market into three basic categories.

I’m listening.
Alright. So there are really three product lines:

1. The low-end headset. It’s actually just a fancy smartphone case. You slip your phone into pair of lenses that strap onto your head like a scuba mask, and presto, you’re living in VR! You can build these things out of plastic, or even, as Google demoed recently, cardboard. Samsung has one such model on the market today for $200. (Yeah, not that cheap, but you could imagine these products selling for $50 or less.)

Joel Arbaje for Fast Company

2. The midrange headset. It’s totally self-contained, like an Oculus Rift or Sony's Project Morpheus, with its own display and probably some headphones. Think of it as a really nice TV or computer monitor for your face. Maybe you plug it into a phone or a PC to play games or watch movies. Oculus is selling its latest dev kit (that means the product isn’t really on the market yet) for $350.

3. Augmented reality. That's an even more experimental line.

"Augmented reality" is a horrible name for a technology.
It is.

What does it mean?
So virtual reality places you in a virtual world, right? Augmented reality lays virtual images onto the real world in front of you. So you could see Google Maps directions on the sidewalk as you walked or someone’s Facebook profile floating over her head at a bar. (Nobody has totally worked out the best use cases yet, if you can’t tell from my examples.)

This hardware is a lot more complicated, and the necessary software is, too. Companies more or less have to map our entire world with a digital Internet to make this idea work, track your position in realtime via GPS, analyze the objects around you via an ingenious camera, and beam related information to your eyes from the cloud.

Nobody can pull that off!
I would agree, except for the fact that two big-deal companies are really trying. You have Microsoft’s HoloLens and a headset by Magic Leap (you probably haven’t heard of the latter company, but it's backed by about $500 million from Google and more cash from other investors).

How did Magic Leap raise so much #*^&ing money?
The company developed a tiny projector that can shoot images right onto your eyes, and apparently, it looks amazing.

So let's say people buy the hardware. Is anyone making content for it?
Yes! Virtual reality already has a very loyal indie development scene, and companies that build the graphics and physics engines behind big games have pledged support for Oculus. On top of that, sports broadcasters are interested. Earlier this year, NBA commissioner Adam Silver proposed that you could have a virtual front row seat to a game via an Oculus Rift.

Plus, these tech companies are recruiting big Hollywood types, too. Oculus has animators from Pixar creating a new style of virtual reality film. And Magic Leap has hired Weta Workshop—the Lord of the Rings special effects guys—to do who knows what.

Wow. So this is going to be huge, huh?
Well, maybe.

Maybe?
There’s a catch.

What’s the catch?
Well, so far we’ve talked about display technologies that allow you to turn your head to look around a virtual world and stuff. But nobody has figured out a real virtual-reality controller. Like, what’s the equivalent of a mouse for virtual reality? Nobody knows. Oculus has teased that it’ll show something off later this year—probably by the guys who made the Xbox 360's famed controller. That’s important. Oculus is very influential, since it sorta launched the whole VR trend, but a good control scheme could be technologically very complicated, requiring external cameras and all sorts of other hardware that’s bulkier and more costly than a headset.

Okay, let’s assume they get controls figured out. Then it’s a hit?
Still, not necessarily. Remember those three categories of headset? They’re different! They need to be standardized, allowing developers to code something once—be that a movie or a game—and have it work on all the headsets. So far, Oculus and Samsung are getting along well in this regard, and Microsoft has said any augmented reality company is welcome to use its HoloLens software platform, but nobody else is signing peace treaties.

And frankly, this whole augmented reality thing? It more or less came out of nowhere. Magic Leap was (and still is) operating in stealth. And Microsoft has been developing its technology in a secret underground lab. Virtual reality and augmented reality could (and I’d bet, will) merge into one magical headset one day, but until that happens, the rivaling technologies are only splitting a market of an uncertain number of early adopters who are willing to wear a screen on their face.

Flickr User Ted Eytan

Wait, I'm supposed to wear a screen ... in public?
Yeah, there’s the social aspect, too! Google Glass (itself, neither virtual nor augmented reality) already flopped, at least in part because of the Glasshole stigma. Wearing an Oculus Rift headset may never look normal. So the experience needs to be so good that we don’t care.

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