What is VR?

By Spaceship contributor 16 April 2019 3 min read

VR, or virtual reality, has dominated conversations around tech investing since Facebook acquired headset maker Oculus for US$2 billion in 2014.

So what is it?

Virtual reality is a digital experience that fully immerses you in an artificial, computer-generated reality via certain tech (like a headset, which is why Oculus became such a big deal).

Think: a video game that you’re actually ‘in’. Or, you know, The Matrix.

AR, or augmented reality, works a bit differently; it copy-pastes bits of a virtual world into your real-world environment.

Think: Pokémon GO, which got really huge for a while in 2016, is a game where you walk around spotting Pokémon on the real footpath and ‘catching’ them on your phone.

Then there’s MR, mixed reality, which is different again (or depending on who you ask, just a better AR). MR uses real-world input to prompt artificial additions.

Think: an interactive map that points things out to you as you walk down the street, gives you helpful stats or adds ‘alterations’ to real-world features (a nose on the Sphinx, say).

The concept of VR has been around for years – inventions like the 19th-century stereoscope are usually flagged as early prototypes of VR tech.

(Wired has written a guide to virtual reality which includes a pretty quick history, if you want to dig deeper on that.)

But it was generally considered pretty niche until Mark Zuckerberg’s 2014 spend-up with Oculus, a Kickstarter project driven by a duct-taped prototype. Investors started to get on board.

Because, as Zuckerberg pointed out, VR tech has potential to revolutionise fields like health and education, as well as just getting people together to hang out. (He’s made an app for that, incidentally.)

It also has clear benefits for the retail sector – for example, ‘trying on’clothes before you buy them, or seeing what something looks like in your house.

(The IKEA Place app has already started playing with this in AR.)

VR has been embraced in the gaming world and the ‘real’ sports industry too.

Live-streaming start-up NextVR is an interesting example and is three seasons into an official partnership with the NBA. The VR experience gives fans extra access wherein users can switch between several cameras to customise their own ‘follow’ of the game.

It’s also opening new distribution channels: a VR League Pass announced in October 2018 allows holders to watch games for free at one of Facebook’s Oculus Venues.

(You can virtually meet other ‘people’ and ‘sit’ next to them in the ‘stadium,’ chat about the game, and perhaps, push them out the way if they obstruct your ‘view’.)

At the Oculus Connect Conference in October 2017, Zuckerberg publicly confirmed his goal to get one billion people in VR – presumably on his products.

But Oculus isn’t the only major player in VR.

Google, HTC, Samsung, Sony are also getting involved, and VR tech is generally getting more financially and functionally accessible with each release.

Film and TV is also experimenting with VR to give viewers a 360-degree experience. (Netflix, for example, lets Android users watch its content in souped-up virtual surroundings; Oculus TV aims to give you a more ‘immersive’ behind–the-scenes content).

Early apps and cross-media series haven’t yet gotten serious mainstream momentum, but investors are watching.

The concern for many is that VR of course won’t just amp up the fun stuff from the internet, but also take the less savoury parts – you know, horrendous torrents of abuse, distressing porn, bullying, scams – and make them, well, real.

Psychological side effects included.

Even gamers have noted that to feel like you’re really living through a battlefield might be… overwhelming. Or you know, could potentially give you PTSD.

The AR and VR wave may also have implications for real-world conflict.

In November 2018, Microsoft won a US$480 million contract to supply prototype AR headsets to the US Army – ultimately to use its HoloLens headsets in combat, Bloomberg reported.

Some tech workers are worried about their cool stuff being used for evil. But while Microsoft’s President said in a statement that employees could choose not to work on military projects, he also said he wanted the people making the tech to stay in the conversation about how it gets used.

The big point here is that those hypothetical dramas thrown up by VR and AR aren’t hypothetical anymore; they’re already being played out everywhere from investment pitches to HR meetings.

What is VR?