Commentary: Three decades on, virtual reality still a blurred vision

Commentary: Three decades on, virtual reality still a blurred vision

The technology remains illusory despite repeated promises of game-changing devices, says the Financial Times' Michael Skapinker.

NEW YORK: The world’s top technology companies were showing off their virtual reality headsets at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas last week.

Facebook’s Oculus Go will go on sale in the US in the next few months, costing US$199. Lenovo’s Mirage Solo, which is based on Google’s Daydream platform, could cost close to US$400.

Consumers are going to take some convincing to spend this sort of money.

Consumer scepticism over virtual reality (or VR) goes back a long way. 

I joined the Financial Times’ electronics writing team 28 years ago this month. I recall VR being touted as the coming thing back then - and I remember consumers being equally dubious.

Indeed, a search of the database reveals a Financial Times article by a colleague in July 1991 that said of VR: "Not since the early days of the silicon chip has so much space been devoted to a computing technology."

As we reported then, VR was an extension of the technology used to train pilots in aircraft simulators, but it was quite a leap to imagine consumers adopting it in large numbers.

In 1992, we quoted the futurologist Faith Popcorn saying that VR, “that form of computer technology which gives its user a three-dimensional feel”, would replace traditional supermarket shopping.

Two years later, we speculated about a time when shoppers would “roam the virtual aisles, examining virtual goods and quizzing virtual sales assistants for more information if required”.


For the gym, a US manufacturer had designed an exercise bike with three-dimensional graphics that “give the exerciser the impression of steering along the bike paths, going up hills and entering buildings”.

We reported that the effect was somewhat limited because the graphics covered only 60 per cent of the gym-goer’s vision. More realistic VR would require stationary cyclists to wear head-mounted displays, but we warned that “if used for 20 minutes they can make people feel dizzy”.

By 2002, we were reporting that “interest in virtual reality is once again picking up”. Prices had fallen and the technology had improved. “People are coming back and taking another look at VR,” one enthusiast added: 

This time the technology is ready - last time it was not.

Yet here we are in 2018, being promised that VR’s time really has come.

What is extraordinary is how consumer electronics has developed over the three decades that VR has marked time: Pocket-sized mobile phones, music streaming on the go, grandparents gazing at infants on the other side of the world, satellite navigators delivering us precisely to our destinations, and all that internet shopping - without VR.

Yes, we can rotate a pair of shoes online, or place a pair of virtual glasses on a screenshot of our faces, but we are generally happy to click on two-dimensional pictures of what we are buying, safe in the knowledge that we can send it back if reality proves disappointing.


To forecast whether VR could finally break through, we need to answer two questions. First, are people ready to put up with the discomfort of a headset when all their other devices have become lighter, slimmer and handheld? Second, what need is VR attempting to fulfil?

The answer should be to put us in an environment which feels real. If we are house searching, being able to walk around the property, VR-style, could cut down on the number of places we have to visit.

But when you are making an investment on that scale, you need to walk around the place in real life. There are already online photos you can rotate around the screen and videos you can watch, but in the end you have to be there.

Last year I tried a VR programme that placed me at the podium of a packed auditorium as I gave a speech. I learnt little from the experience, because I have stood at those podiums many times and it feels nothing like this.

The press of the VR headset was not like the heat of real spotlights. The noise of the audience was too close, failing to mimic that distant, dread-inducing wait for a laugh.

No doubt VR speechmaking programmes will get better. But I suspect only reality can prepare you for reality.

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Source: Financial Times/sl