Why Virtual Reality hasn’t reached the mainstream yet

James Lozano (left) and Stephanie Aliman (right) wear VR headsets while playing the virtual reality game Far Cry at Vancouver’s Zero Latency, a 1,900-square-foot space in a mall.Rafal Gerszak/THE GLOBE AND THE MAIL

In the Zero Latency VR Arcade in Vancouver, a group of players face off against a horde of zombies. The group rushes through an abandoned skyscraper, climbing the floors, dodging and shooting at the undead to reach the helicopter on the roof. When they encounter the helicopter, one of the post-apocalyptic survivors jumps towards it – but falls. In the real world, they jumped in the air and on the ground. But with the Free Roam VR game, it felt real.

What shocks newcomers, says Winston Cabell, owner of Zero Latency Vancouver, is “how immersive it really is. You feel like you’re a part of it,” and not in a 1,900-square-foot space in a West Coast mall. Social Media Pages for the Arcade View videos from userswho are fully invested in their digital escape, struggling to traverse non-existent ramps high in the air, or experiencing the shock and terror of armies of monsters coming their way.

The availability and accessibility of virtual and augmented reality has accelerated over the past decade as consumer headsets like the PlayStation VR, the Oculus Meta Quest Two, and the full-kit system of the HTC Vive Pro 2 break into the mainstream with retail prices of $299 US dollars hit , $459 and $1,849, respectively. These headsets remain a niche gaming product in the eyes of most consumers.

But big investments from tech giants like Google, Meta, and Amazon have grabbed headlines and piqued public curiosity about the technology’s eventual mass adoption.

Facebook, which officially changed its name to Meta last October, has bet on VR after buying headset company Oculus for $2 billion in 2014 and announcing a US$10 billion investment in his Reality Labs in 2021.

Announced late last year, Meta’s Project Cambria will offer an all-in-one VR setup designed for work-related purposes. Google previously invested in Google Glass, a line of AR glasses, while Amazon announced one AR “virtual try-on” feature that shows what a new pair of shoes might look like on your phone screen on your feet.

Researchers excited by the potential of VR and believing it’s on the cusp of mainstream saturation say the technology is still in a phase of experimentation and development.

“We have pretty good technology for consumers, and now it’s getting really exciting,” says Tony Tang, director at the University of Toronto’s RICELab (Rethinking Interaction, Collaboration and Engagement), which studies human-computer interaction in technologies like VR. Still, says Mr. Tang, “It’s a bit mixed.”

At this stage, he says, VR and AR don’t solve any obvious problems that smartphones and computers can’t solve. “For a lot of the things we do, the phone you have in your pocket is perfectly capable of doing all the things you want.”

However, Mr. Tang concedes that the same could have been said in the early days of smartphones and touchscreens. “Let’s be honest, many [early apps] were crappy games, but it allowed us to see what types of games would work well on mobile,” he says, which ultimately fueled innovation for the apps we use and rely on every day.

“You could argue that VR and AR technologies haven’t found that killer app yet, that real niche thing that everyone really needs.”

James Lozano helps Stephanie Aliman put on a headset.Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and the Post

In the quest for this “killer app,” companies like Meta, Google, and others have formed partnerships with developers and research organizations like Mr. Tang’s RICELab, which received $30,000 from Meta to explore new use cases. For example, RICELab member Warren Park is investigating how business or academic presentations can be optimized in VR environments. RICELab’s $30,000 grant was part of a larger $510,000 meta-program sent to 17 labs across the country.

“Many of these ideas will fail completely,” says Mr. Tang, although these failures may lead to future breakthroughs. “With other ideas, there might be a little nugget where it’s like, ‘Oh, that might be kind of interesting.’ And then we build on that.”

Lennart Nacke, a professor at the University of Waterloo, says: “Although it has not yet reached the mainstream, [VR is] successful in healthcare, automotive, and all those industries.” But to take that step beyond industrial or business-to-business applications into the consumer space, he says, developers need to embrace the immersion of VR with a strong narrative in their game, movie or their software.

Mr. Nacke, head of the Human-Computer Interaction Games Group at Waterloo’s Games Institute, who previously studied animation, draws comparisons between VR and CGI (computer-generated imagery) technology in video games and films. After over 20 years of innovation and experimentation, it took until the release of Jurassic Park In 1993, this CGI captured the public’s imagination. Not only did the film gross nearly $1 billion at the box office, but it sparked dinosaur hype in the ’90s that even inspired the naming of the Toronto Raptors.

The seamless blend of advanced technology and gripping narrative propelled interest in CGI beyond the world of developers, programmers, and animators and into pop culture. “It was one of those aha moments,” says Nacke.

For VR to penetrate the public consciousness, it needs to have a similar cultural moment, he explains. “But this whole idea of, ‘How do we do the next thing? Jurassic Park moment for consumers?’ That didn’t happen.”

From the printing press to radio, film, television and video games, the public appeal of these technologies has always been rooted in the universal appeal of storytelling.

“Enabling storytelling to the best of this technology’s knowledge is always what drives this technology forward,” says Mr. Nacke.

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