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Is a head set-free version of Virtual Reality really just over the horizon?

Is a head set-free version of Virtual Reality really just over the horizon?

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The term "Virtual Reality" has been a buzzword in pop culture for decades but accessible VR technology has always been more science fiction than science fact. Fans of entertainment are finally entering a new era. In 2014 VR technology had actually come of age. Large companies, like Google and Sony, were showing audiences what their R&D groups had been busy working on. One of the first previews of the latest VR technology happened at the Game Developers Conference in March 2014. The GDC takes place in San Jose every year and brings together the trendsetters, iconoclasts and publishers for a multi-day a conference that is not open to the public. It was here that Sony unveiled Project Morpheus. The VR headset dazzled audiences. It featured a high definition display and stereo headphones in a light shell. Weight and power had long been issues with early VR headsets. Advances in screen and battery technology from mobile devices made the new generation of VR more promising.

Project Morpheus was a long time coming but it was not exclusively the work of Sony engineers. The company had designers that had worked on the crowd-source funded Oculus VR technology. Game developers from iD, Microsoft and other major publishers were  interested in the immersive technology. This was technology that could not only be applied for games but had practical applications for home entertainment centers, home computing, schools, offices and hospitals. For the sake of Jim Hill Media we will focus on just the entertainment aspects of the technology. The 2014 GDC gave audiences a glimpse of the advances of VR but the first real hands-on came at the E3 in Los Angeles a few months later. Shelly and I had a chance to test the different VR technologies over that time. The application of a VR headset with a game certainly did add a sense of immersion that is hard to describe. Turning your head, tilting and leaning changed our perspective in real-time. We could hear enemies behind us, bullets buzzing overhead and allies calling from a distance. We could look and actually see this happening in a full 360 degrees. This was a feature that could be used while sitting or standing at home but the applications outside the home were even more promising. Developer Virtuix created a platform that allowed players to actually stand, turn and walk in a full 360 degrees. It wasn't as disorienting as it sounds. Players stepped into a harness, that helped keep them centered on the platform. They placed slip covers over their shoes so that they could slide on the platform and mimic the action of walking. It was awkward at first but after a few moments it felt eerily realistic. 

Having accessible VR had been a long time coming. Almost every major publisher had taken a stab at the format. Sega begun development on a VR console based on the success of the Mega Drive / Genesis in 1993. It was supposed to debut in 1994 but never materialized. Nintendo countered with the Virtual Boy in 1995. The console was meant to be a portable 3D gaming system, a successor to the popular GameBoy. The technology was slightly modernized from the older Tomy "Tomytronic" 3D handheld LCD gaming system from 1982. The Virtual Boy was a dismal failure due to it's two-color format (red and black) and small library of titles. The console was discontinued in 1996. When the Disney company announced that they would also get into the VR movement many gamers were excited. If there was one company that could crack that nut it would be Disney. DisneyQuest opened in 1998, it was on the cutting-edge of theme park, arcade and immersive technologies. Aladdin's Magic Carpet Ride for example would allow players to wear a VR helmet and experience flying through the streets of Agrabah. It was amazing for the time but became outdated within a few years. This would be the major sticking point with VR technology. By the time that a company got a helmet from prototype to market it would be either outdated technology within or be so expensive that most people could not afford it. A company as large as Disney committing to VR seemed very risky. Shareholders probably did not like this prospect of having to reinvest in new technology every year. This did not stop the company from experimenting with the format. 

The always-popular Midway Mania, which opened in 2008, featuring the Toy Story characters was an example of VR. These types of rides were sometimes referred to as "4D." Audiences sported 3D glasses and interacted with the game screens. This attraction could be updated as often as the Disney company wanted to. It was not the only attraction that had the benefit of new technology. Goofy's Paint 'n' Play House debuted in Tokyo Disneyland in 2012. In the attraction audiences could paint the walls with light cannons. Audiences did not need glasses to enjoy the augmented reality experience. The paint effects were instead projection-mapped onto physical objects. At the 2015 GDC, Disney actually had a presentation. Bei Yang, an executive of Creative Technology with the Imagineering group discussed new approaches with Virtual Reality. He discussed being able to create an augmented experience without the use of a headset. Noting that the current model where gamers wear headsets isolates them from the community. It would be better if a group could participate in the experience without all having to don special glasses or headwear. It certainly planet the seeds of discussion with the development community and caused the gaming press to go into overdrive. Reporters speculated that Disney was considering building entire theme parks as well as current, past and Blue Sky attractions in VR. Audiences went wild at the prospect. Perhaps Disney used the 2015 GDC appearance to hint at something that they wanted to unveil at the E3 or D23 this year. We can only wait and see.

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