An overview of recent magazine covers would suggest that virtual reality technology is the latest marvel to hit the consumer market. Not too long ago, Best Buy’s main display table featured a virtual reality headset by Oculus Rift. No matter that the goggles were massive, awkward, heavy and extended your forehead by 6 inches, the technology was cool and apparently here to stay. True to its mission of making the latest technical gadgetry available to the masses, Best Buy stocked its shelves. If Best Buy had 3D headsets in stock, I reasoned, it was only a matter of time before every home and professional office had multiple sets as well.
To 3D or Not to 3D?
I bought into that idea, other companies did as well. For months, CivilGEO was a flurry of activity as we tried to implement 3D virtual reality functionality in the GeoHECRAS base product giving it 3D “virtual view.” The groundwork was laid, which means that programming for additional 3D functionality will be simplified in the future, and the software was released with great hoopla and fanfare. But now I am trying to come to terms with a surprising discovery: The demand I expected among GeoHECRAS users for 3D virtual reality capability never materialized. The features that allow an engineer to make use of the 3D virtual view using the Oculus Rift are underused. What gives?
Step back a moment and consider patterns in history. How many times has a bit of new gadgetry entered the market promising the stars, moon and universe to the average consumer only to sputter and suffer a long death? That, of course, won’t happen with virtual environments. Too many universities have invested in virtual reality laboratories, Syracuse University’s Media, Interface, and Network Design Lab, or M.I.N.D. is the latest, and too many companies have invested in developing 3D technologies, all of which guarantees the field won’t quickly disappear. But, we are far from commercial success at this point. A unique blend of circumstances needs to happen as well.
New Technology Adoption Can Sometimes Take Decades
The very first electric cars appeared in the early 1800’s. After additional tinkering in Europe and elsewhere, a more practical version was introduced mid-century by a chemist by the name of William Morrison. Gas vehicles were still problematic, steam was unworkable and so the electric car gained popularity, particularly in urban areas, with the growing availability of electricity by the 1920’s.
As an article published by the Department of Energy points out, Henry Ford’s Model T, which could be available for half the price of an electric car, ended the electric car’s brief renaissance. The widespread availability of gas and its low cost, better mileage in the country and other variables created the circumstances that lifted up the gas-powered vehicle while simultaneously crushing the fortunes of the electric one. In the years that followed, interest in the electric car spiked with the oil embargo of the 1970’s and the effects of soaring gas prices. But still no real interest by the consuming masses, even during the 1990’s when the public’s attention turned to the damaging effects of fossil fuels. A few decades later, Toyota’s Hybrid Prius set records from the get-go and checked all the boxes. Now Tesla is offering the “Model T” version of its electric car (Tesla Model 3). Everyone will want one, Elon Musk reasons, because the electric car’s day in the sun is finally here and the public’s demand is real and long-term.
Is it Indispensable?
The history of virtual reality is not nearly so old. The earliest VR technology took the form of flight simulators for the military in the 1970’s and 3D surgical training in the medical field. Virtual Reality Modeling Language (VRML) emerged in 1997. Google’s Street View, offering panoramic streetscapes, surfaced in 2007. Samsung Gear VR, SM-R321, was one of the first marketable versions of a virtual reality headset and was promoted for entertainment purposes. Developed in collaboration with Oculus, it was released in March of 2015. The three-dimensional viewing headsets that we see on the market are still young; the earliest prototypes, designed principally for VR gaming, arrived in stores around 2010. We are arguably in the very early stages of the public’s use of this technology (and no, the stereoscopic View-Masters from our childhood don’t count).
What does this mean for those of us who want to invest in and incorporate VR technology into our own products? It means we recognize that this is a technology that is still in the formative years. It is clear it can be used for an array of purposes and providing real-world context to engineering projects is just one area. Technology needs to be viewed as necessary for it to truly take hold. Arguably, one of the factors behind the Prius’s success is the public’s view that the car plays a small role in reducing carbon emissions. As VR technology advances and the number of applications grow, interest will surge. Until then, we remain in a holding pattern.