Virtual reality has had many false dawns since it was first conceived back in the 1950s.
The concept of virtual reality extends way back to 1838 when Charles Wheatstone discovered that lining up stereoscopic photos or paintings side by side, viewed through a special lens, could create the illusion of 3D.
Morton Heilig’s Sensorama was developed in the 1950s and patented in 1962 and was the first mechanical instance of virtual reality being released to the public.
It was amazing technology that used holographic images, vibrations and incorporates the sense of smell as well as sight and sound to give a truly immersive experience.
This paved the way for the first VR headset in 1960, which was further evolved in 1961 with a headset that included motion tracking. Exciting times for an era not widely regarded for its technology.
It was 1969 when these headsets were first combined with computer graphics to create virtual worlds.
Since then, there have been numerous attempts to bring virtual reality to the public with explorable worlds, games and other interactions.
Virtual Reality became the official term in 1987, NASA began training astronauts using the technology in the late 1980s and video game arcades and consoles rolled out VR headsets during the 1990s.
While the technology was exciting, it was proving impossible to deliver affordable options to the public so most mainstream releases were commercial failures.
Virtual reality finally finds its niche in the homes around the world
With devices like Nintendo’s Virtual Boy, the Sega VR-1 and numerous arcade virtual reality headsets littering landfill sites around the world, you could forgive tech companies if they abandoned the concept altogether.
But a simple Kickstarter by small tech company Oculus in 2012 started a tsunami of support towards VR innovations.
The success of the Oculus Rift (which launched in 2016 and has since seen 250,000 units sold) has inspired some of the biggest tech companies in the world to jump on board, including NVIDIA Corporation, Intel Corporation, Google and Samsung while other, smaller companies like HTC Corporation have become giants in the VR world.
Statistics show that the VR industry is growing by 45.8 per cent every year and is tipped to become a US$66.5 Billion in the next decade.
Over 171 million people worldwide have access to VR or augmented reality devices and the gaming VR sector alone is expected to reach $22.9 billion by the end of 2020.
It appears the days of false dawns are over, and we truly are living in The Matrix.
How the global COVID-19 pandemic is accelerating the growth of virtual reality?
While blasting zombies, aliens and other baddies in VR is pretty sweet, the wide-reaching applications of the technology are about more than just video games. And with businesses, educational facilities and many other companies and industries coming to a standstill in 2020 to reduce the spread of the novel coronavirus, VR technology is being turned to more and more.
Treating patients without the risk of exposure
In Taipei, doctors are using VR headsets developed by HTC and medical suppliers Tzu Chi USA to treat patients suffering from COVID-19.
It means that they can assist patients without risking exposure themselves. Director at the Department of Emergency Medicine at the hospital Yiang Giuo-teng said it was not only a safe way of operating, but it was also extremely simple as well.
“I believe many of us have played video games, including VR video games,” he said.
“Our VR medical training system is very similar to VR video games, therefore it is very easy to start. The simulations are very simple, trainees just have to learn some basic procedures. It’s biggest advantage is that the trainee does not need the physical presence of a teacher. They can learn with the system at any time they want.”
“We can also have a team of two or three other students to take care of the same patient”, he continued.
Virtual medical support for people suffering other ailments
With hospitals around the world swelling because of the influx of COVID-19 patients, it means there is less room for people suffering from other conditions.
Many of these conditions put patients in the high-risk bracket as well, which means visiting hospitals and clinics becomes a risky exercise for them.
To address this, many health care providers are adopting VR technology to deliver services without the risk of exposure.
Boston-based XRHealth is one company developing this technology, creating VR telehealth support groups for people suffering from conditions like cancer, stroke, brain injuries, anxiety, chronic pain, substance abuse and for the elderly as well.
Conferences and events
Large groups of people are mostly banned across the world and that is unlikely to change anytime soon. That means no more large crowds at sporting events, live concerts and other forms of entertainment.
But it also means conferences, trade shows and industry events are also scrapped which is extremely detrimental to world economies and the growth and development of companies and entire industries.
Virtual technology is being used to develop solutions to this, as you cannot really get the full experience of these events through platforms like Zoom or Microsoft Teams.
VR tech company HTC was one of the first to develop technology to address this, hosting the HTC Vive Ecosystem Conference (VEC) entirely in virtual reality.
The success of this conference is likely to pave the way for more events and conferences to be held in a similar way.
What these COVID-19-inspired virtual reality technologies mean for the industry
While the numbers have been strong for VR in recent years and sales promising, this has largely been driven by the video games sector.
For VR to truly succeed, it needs to attract the attention of larger developers and more practical applications created.
COVID-19 is fast-tracking these applications and shifting perceptions away from VR being used exclusively for gaming.
Potentially, this pandemic could be the catalyst for virtual reality becoming truly mainstream across business and industries as well as just for gamers.