We’ve come a long way in virtual reality in 50 years.
The first VR headset created by Ivan Sutherland between 1965 and 1968 was nicknamed the Sword of Damocles because it looked just like a huge sword hanging over the head of the person using it.
VR hardware is now much friendlier, looking less like a torture device and more like a chunky sleep mask.
Sutherland’s headset showed a cube suspended in the air. Now when we put on a VR headset, it can feel like we’ve been transported to the Moon, the rainforest or into our favourite video game.
Because of how immersive they can be, experts predict that we may choose to spend less time in the real world and more time in a virtual one.
‘In 20 years, VR use will be as common as mobile phone use is today,’ Sol Rogers, CEO and founder of VR agency REWIND, tells Metro.co.uk.
This may have been hard to imagine a few years ago but advances in VR technology are moving fast.
That’s not even to mention what happens when quantum computing hits the mainstream and/or when graphene devices hit the market.
We’re virtually (sorry) at the start of what’s possible.
Facebook-owned Oculus recently launched the Quest headset, one of a small number of VR headsets that are completely untethered, not needing to be physically connected to a second device.
Until recently, the best VR experiences needed powerful PCs to keep them running but the Quest shows that you don’t need fancy (and pricey) extra equipment to try VR for yourself.
There’s still a long way to go before we’re trading in our smartphones for VR headsets but this is another step towards what some experts think is inevitable:
‘Eventually, we will reach a ‘lifelike’ level of graphics quality,’ Albert Millis, managing director of Virtual Umbrella and immersive experience company Steine, tells Metro.co.uk.
Not only will experiences be almost indistinguishable from the real world but the advent of 5G makes many more things possible.
‘The arrival of 5G will push the storage, power consumption, and processing power away from the PC and into the edge cloud,’ Rogers says.
‘This means VR users will only require a headset, which opens VR up to be consumed any time, anywhere.’
As VR becomes more lifelike and more available in the near future, what will we all be using it do?
The short answer: almost everything.
Many successful gaming titles have already been adapted to work in VR, such as Skyrim and Borderlands 2 but it’s already growing with bespoke virtual reality titles.
Social VR gaming is already growing, with recent predictions saying that group experiences allowing you to try VR in groups will become more popular.
There’s already a bespoke VR theatre in Bristol and many events spaces across the country have been host to immersive theatre events.
Social experiences within virtual environments are also expected to become much more commonplace, allowing users to meet new people.
In the future, however, social VR could be less about meeting new people and more about connecting with the partner, friends and family you already know.
Oculus Rooms, a customisable social space from Facebook’s Oculus, allows you to hang out in with your friends while playing games or watching films.
It doesn’t feel too far away from what you’d imagine a Facebook of the future to look like.
The best of The Future Of Everything
It’s also likely to have a big impact on a range of other industries too.
‘Physical and emotional pain will be increasingly eased by VR interventions,’ Rogers says.
VR has been used to distract patients with severe burns while they’re receiving treatment but, as headsets become more affordable, VR is likely to become commonplace in hospitals as a way to soothe patients.
For decades, VR has been studied as a tool for helping to treat PTSD, phobias and depression but we’re only now beginning to see VR-driven treatments reach those who really need them.
As well as helping patients, VR may soon be used to train the surgeons that treat them.
‘To be able to practice surgeries in VR will reduce errors and help simulate the right environment,’ Sarah Jones, head of the Birmingham School of Media at Birmingham City University, says.
‘It could allow for medical breakthroughs.’
VR training programmes have already been rolled out across other professions.
Nasa has used VR to prepare astronauts for complicated tasks in space and the NYPD has added VR training to help police officers learn how to respond to active shooter emergencies.
This kind of training will particularly appeal to anyone involved in high-risk work requiring precise skills and movements that need a lot of practice.
Education can also benefit from VR, transforming lessons to make them more fun and engaging.
‘We’re already seeing schools take students on virtual field trips and learning about space from the Moon so the opportunities for this will transform education and really help children that learn in different ways,’ Jones says.
With more time being taken by the exciting world of VR, there could be startling changes to how people spend their days:
‘Some people will choose to spend more time in VR than in their real world because virtual reality will be more appealing than their day to day lives.’ Rogers says.
According to the Digital 2019 report, on average we spend six hours and 42 minutes online every day.
If most of that time is spent on social media, reading emails, playing games and watching TV, we can expect to do a lot of those things within VR more and more over the next 20 years.
‘It’s quite legitimate to picture a world where more time is spent in VR than in real life,’ says Jones.
‘But this isn’t the escape from a dystopian world like in Ready Player One.’
Instead of a way to escape or isolate ourselves from the world around us, VR could present a way for us to do things better – especially work.
‘Why do we travel to somewhere physically when we spend the majority of our time digitally communicating with people?’ Rogers says.
‘The idea of a brick and mortar office will go as VR transforms our working lives and enables us to connect with people and content in new and meaningful ways.’
That all sounds great and wonderful bright future but there are concerns about VR.
A 1998 study known as the ‘rubber hand illusion’ found people watching a rubber hand being stroked at the same time as their own hand soon began to feel as though the rubber hand was part of their body.
Similar studies have looked at this same mechanism. In VR, people can accept a digital avatar within a virtual space is their own body.
VR researchers refer to this as ‘presence’ and it can make what you experience in a virtual world feel indistinguishable from the real world.
When it comes to fun, immersive experiences, it can add intimacy to social VR or adventure to a high-energy sports game.
But if experiences are uncomfortable or involve violence and harassment, this high level of ‘presence’ could have serious consequences.
‘Studies have shown that the physiological and emotional responses to violence in VR are strong, even with low-quality VR,’ Rogers tells Metro.co.uk.
Instead of stopping or avoiding violence, Rogers believes there’s a more practical answer:
‘Content creators have a duty of care,’ he tells Metro.co.uk.
‘If a violent act is unsettling in VR, developers need to manage it.
There’s also a concern that VR can be isolating but Rogers believes this fear stems from a misunderstanding of where VR is heading.
‘VR will bring us together,’ he says.
‘Facebook’s Social VR team is designing technologies that help people to create, share and build moments together.’
And it is this balance that is still being found.
Millis believes educating people about the benefits of VR is important in order to avoid what he describes as ‘moral panic’, which could be ‘similar to how people worry about screentime’ and might prevent us from realising the full potential of VR.
‘VR is still in its infancy,’ Rogers explains.
‘The learning curve is steep so we need to ensure regulations and classifications change in line with new findings.’
One way to address some of the biggest issues with virtual reality is to focus on the development of augmented reality (AR) instead.
AR adds virtual layers, objects and characters over the real world that you see all around you.
You may have already come across AR without knowing it when you’ve played Pokemon Go or added a Snapchat or Instagram lens to your selfies.
The technology is also being used across a range of industries, such as retail to help you try make-up on before you buy it, or in healthcare to carry out complex surgical procedures.
Whilst VR fully immerses you within a virtual environment, AR works by adding virtual elements to the surroundings you’re already in.
This is why some industry insiders believe it could be that AR and not VR could become the more popular and widely-used medium.
‘There is the idea of social exclusion with VR,’ Jones says. ‘Whereas manipulating digital objects within your space in AR means that you don’t have to forget the environment you’re in.’
But instead, there are clear distinctions between what both technologies can be used for so perhaps they could complement one another?
‘I believe VR and AR will both be commonplace,’ says Millis.
‘I think AR use will be light. It will be integrated into smartphones and lenses and used in short bursts whereas people using VR will be much more engaged and when they use it, it will be for longer periods.’
Both technologies have potential, but it’s the levels of immersion that VR offers that makes it so appealing – as well as its extraordinary ability to transport us to places we’d never usually be able to go.
‘AR is still in the real world, but with VR we can be freed from our physical, geographical and sociological bounds,’ says Rogers.
‘VR has a unique ability to transport us, and offer an escape from reality.’
The real tricky questions will start being asked if/when the contact lens is your primary digital device.
And then who knows where the boundaries between virtual reality and actual reality will be?
The Future Of Everything
This piece is part of Metro.co.uk’s series The Future Of Everything.
From OBEs to CEOs, professors to futurologists, economists to social theorists, politicians to multi-award winning academics, we think we’ve got the future covered, away from the doom mongering or easy Minority Report references.
Every weekday, we’re explaining what’s likely (or not likely) to happen.
Talk to us using the hashtag #futureofeverything If you think you can predict the future better than we can or you think there’s something we should cover we might have missed, get in touch: email@example.com or Alex.Hudson@metro.co.uk
Read every Future Of Everything story so far