Virtual reality is here — but are we ready for it?

I hate roller-coasters.

Yet somehow I found myself, one day recently, shooting down a hill on a luge track, my stomach lurching with every turn. I shouldn’t have enjoyed it, but something in me was absurdly delighted with the experience.

Maybe because it wasn’t a real luge course but, rather, a virtual reality headset that allowed me to have the sensation of flying down a winding mountain road, replete with obstacles and cars and trucks, pushing me and pulling me in every direction even though my feet were solidly planted on solid ground.

Such are the wonders of virtual reality. It’s almost hard to believe, after all these years, that VR sets are finally coming. Sony’s Playstation VR is on shelves this week. The much-hyped, oft-delayed Oculus Rift and another offering, HTC Vive, are taking pre-orders now.

We were given early access to the Playstation VR recently, and it felt like I was strapping the future to my head. But it’s yet to be seen whether the technology took too long to arrive, and whether it actually is the Next Big Thing.

After having played around with Sony’s latest prototype, here are four questions that need answering before I’m ready to believe that this version of VR toys is, at long last, less virtual and more reality.

1) Will the price be right?

A typical home theatre already has a big-screen TV flanked by speakers, an HD receiver and perhaps a video game system. Oculus, Sony and others are betting you’re willing to shell out big bucks to add a VR headset to that pile: $549.99 for the Playstation; $849 for the Rift; and $1,149 for the HTC Vive. Dozens of others are also vying for your business.

All of them also need to be hooked up to a console or a computer, not included in the price.

Playstation VR

Toys such as the PlayStation VR are a step towards our virtual reality future, but they are still far too pricey for most people. (Ed Middleton/CBC)

At that price point, VR is still a niche market. And that will only change as the price comes down and as more movies and games become available. For now, they remain an awfully expensive and remarkably inflexible endeavour.

2) Are they late to the party? 

While Oculus spent years in development and Sony was busy working out game deals for big-name offerings like Batman, smaller, more versatile headsets beat them to market.

Google built one out of cardboard. Samsung added to the field recently with VR Gear, coming in with a retail price of less than $100.

They don’t have the same level of graphics, but they are affordable, versatile and, most of all, available now.

3) Why do we need VR when we have AR?

While most of the focus remains on virtual reality, this summer we all saw the power and promise of augmented reality.

Niantic’s Pokemon Go game became the most popular mobile game in the world based on a simple notion: take the world around you and augment it with technology and computer graphics. At its best, AR uses ubiquitous technology like your phone and employs it to augment the world around you into something more.

“Where VR ties us to a device, AR changes our way of life,” says Ramona Pringle, director of the Transmedia Zone at Ryerson University. “It brings the digital world into our homes, businesses and neighbourhoods in unprecedented ways, as an overlay over everything we do, everything we buy and everyone we talk to.”

4) Can virtual reality be less isolating?

The moment you strap on a virtual reality headset, you slip into a darkened world. Your eyes quickly adjust — and just like that, you are taken somewhere else.

It’s a world of possibilities, but you are very much alone in that world.

Oculus Rift

Virtual reality headsets such as the Oculus Rift can make for an amazing experience for the viewer, but they can be susprisingly isolating. (Anna Brisbin/Bloomberg)

As I immersed myself into the VR luge contest, I could vaguely tell people were around me in the real world and I had very little interaction with them. In a way, strapping on the VR headset was incredibly isolating. Pringle says that remains an issue for the technology.

“If you look at the last decade, the most popular technologies have been the ones that connect us to each other,” she said. “The headset, right now, still inhibits that.”

Next steps

There’s no question this is where the future is going. But it’s also clear we aren’t quite there yet. Prices need to come down and VR needs to have a breakthrough moment. 

That moment may be coming via Hollywood. Steven Spielberg is working on a movie called Ready Player One, based on a novel in which just about everyone, everywhere, uses virtual reality and interacts in something called the Oasis — a Matrix-like piece of software in which people live, work and play.

VR sets such as the high-end ones about to hit store shelves show us the potential in VR that science fiction fans have been dreaming about for decades.

But for now, it’s a safe bet most consumers will turn to the cheaper, more flexible setups and wait for the bigger players to catch up.

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