Virtual reality: The future revisited

Back in the late 80s and early 90s, virtual reality was one of the big future ideas, prevalent in both science fiction and general culture.  The irony is that while many things connected to VR have come true – i.e. the global interconnected network of the internet; immersive computer generated worlds; and digital socialising, the one damp squib was the idea at the centre of it: that of putting a helmet on your head and gloves on your hands to step into another world a la ‘Lawnmower Man’.  The technology was too clunky and expensive, and caused motion sickness. People discovered they didn’t need it. A TV was as immersive a gaming experience as you needed – especially if you had a 40” HD screen. And text, photos and video were enough for ‘meaningful’ social interaction, especially when combined with mobile touchscreen technology.

However, there are glimmers that Virtual Reality might be finally delivering on its initial promise. Oculus Rift have been developing a product for the past couple of years, even involving the now-obligatory Kickstarter campaign. Along the way, several prototypes have been promoted to foster a developer community in advance of a consumer launch in late 2014/early 2015. The latest, launched at CES 2014 in the last couple of weeks, appears to be ‘the one’ – the product whose user experience is so spot-on perfect and effortless that people just get it the moment they use it.

You had me at scrolling’ was the phrase coined to describe the instant comprehension and appreciation users had when encountering the iPhone for the first time, and it appears that Oculus Rift have cracked the equivalent with Virtual Reality. Everybody who has tried the latest version was raving about it. Not just the usual suspects (Engadget and Gizmodo) but also the likes of Forbes.

The innovation sounds simple, but I imagine is incredibly complex to deliver: when you move your head, the image on the screen moves with you. No perceived timelag, no perceived blurring, you move your head around and the image smoothly moves with you. Apparently this is the capability that previous VR headsets have lacked. It sounds simple but apparently the affect is mind-blowing and leads to withdrawal symptoms in test subjects who just want to use it again and again.

The applications are limitless. Games obviously, healthcare, marketing and retail (Selfridges currently have a booth set up enabling people to immerse themselves in a world created by fashion designer Gareth Pugh and, of course (because this is the Truth blog), insight and research. As with all the best technologies the uses are limited only by people’s imaginations, with the most obvious things coming to mind being immersive and instantly customisable VR fixtures for shopper research and virtual product prototypes and environments for gauging feedback and developing user experiences. One of the key challenges and skills in insight has always been about making things real before they are real to get a meaningful read from potential users, and this could be a valuable tool in this armoury. It won’t necessarily dramatically change the world of consumer insight in the same way as it will change areas such as healthcare, but it will provide a rich and relevant tool that any researcher would be unwise not to engage with.