It’s no secret that as virtual reality keeps on growing in popularity, VR headsets keep on costing more and more. Every VR headset has an internal battery – a tiny one that should last a few hours – an external battery pack – a bulky one that should last a couple of weeks – and a viewing camera – a larger, more integrated one – that allows people in VR to move freely within a VR space without having to crouch down.
How did this all happen? It started way back in the 90s, a medium period that we can rewind to like it’s 1910. The great invention of VR headsets in the 1990s was the Microsoft Vibe – the more insidious world’s first VR headset. As good as the Vibe was, it was also the prototype for the Vive, created at the Microsoft Research Lab in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Microsoft used the same Vibe design, but with a top-down screen that allowed the headset to look like a hand-held games console and keep gamers entertained while they rested comfortably in their seats. The HTC Vive followed the VR Vibe designs and was released in late 2016.
Unfortunately, for the people who went for the Vive in 2016, they were sold on just two elements: comfort and a headset that didn’t cost much – but come on! The Vibe cost $399 and the Vive was $599. The Vive was also shipped with an external battery pack that was $150 – but the video camera was an extra $199. A calculator tells us that the total price tag for the total package, including the battery pack and the video camera – that was $849. We were already paying too much.
VR the way we knew it wasn’t dead, not by a long shot. It was simply not consumer friendly. It was considered a luxury item.
How did the hardware of VR change? Simple: better technology!
With technology as the driving force in VR in the late 1990s, the best VR design was to let the view-field define the experience. Oculus was stuck with a first-generation view-field, and it was just really big, which required a unique set of abilities (such as facial expressions and second-screen collaboration) that only software could easily manage. Adding the video camera took out a great deal of time and effort.
The hardware of the Vibe had one extra quality that Oculus struggled with: it’s all about comfort. As much as VR would define the perception and performance of the product, it would define the comfort of the wearer. That was as simple as it is today.
With the introduction of telepresence headsets like Star Trek’s Mirror Mirror, you could no longer sit in a chair and look out a window when you had a computer and a telepresence headset connected. What the telepresence headsets didn’t do was provide comfort and longevity to the wearer.
Vive was the first headset to win the battle for comfort, and a second-generation design (out by 2018) has kept the VR headset fresh and new.
When VR reaches “critical mass” (1B users, 550M headsets shipped) that means we need to find a way to reduce costs for headsets without compromising on content. Vividly realistic VR isn’t cheap. Getting a consumer ready, comfortable VR experience at launch costs millions of dollars.
That’s when the true power of VR comes in: The consumer-accessible, headset-connected computer. Let’s just say it already exists.
Bernard Marr is a futurist and executive producer at WhoWhere? Digital Design. Through his work, he endeavors to predict emerging trends and social and economic revolutions for the global digital economy.