Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Why We Don't Have VR Headsets

VR headsets are one of those hardware applications that seems like it holds such promise and wonder, but has never got off the ground. In that way it's like the flying car. Both of these technologies are perfectly capable of being produced today, and the demand for them would certainly be too, but they both have obstacles which would need to be overcome.

The problems with the flying car being mass-produced are many-fold. The most obvious issue is that the fuel needed to put a car in the air and move it around is much greater than the cost of moving something with wheels. The benefits of having a flying car aren't that substantial compared to that of a normal car: you wouldn't have to follow the roads and you would be able to avoid most other traffic. That isn't to say that other traffic wouldn't be there, but with three dimensions of travel instead of just two it would be a lot easier to avoid anyone else. But this brings us to the final problem of the flying car; moving in three dimensions is much more difficult and dangerous than moving in two. Consider the differences between getting a driver's license and a pilot's license and you can see why it would take considerable cultural and technological changes for the flying car to become a reality.

The VR headset has problems of a different sort. The first problem is software. If I buy a VR headset today, the games on it won't work on any other VR headset, and since no large software companies support them, the games are most likely made by the same company that made the headset, and for that reason probably not very good.

No software means that few people will buy headsets; a lack of hardware penetration means that it isn't profitable to make software. This is something that the videogame industry has made quite clear. Have you ever thought about why there are only three competitors? It's because they're the ones who spend millions of dollars on putting the hardware into homes, advertising it, and developing the technologies. Neither Sony, Microsoft, or Nintendo could offer that level of support without other companies making the software. The amount of capital investment needed to enter the market is massive, and it's not a business that you can dip a toe in.

So right now, since no big company has invested in making the VR headset a reality, the technology is lagging behind in relative terms. The current generation looks a little like bulky sunglasses. The image is stereo (meaning that you see a different image with each eye) to mimic your natural eyesight and give the illusion of real sight. The glasses can go transparent so that you can see the real world. The glasses track your head movements, so that when you turn your head to the left you're seeing whatever is to your left in the virtual world, again mimicing the real world.

Up next; what the technology will look like in ten to fifteen years, and what it will mean for knowledge based industries.

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