Gamers have already reported being disoriented by virtual reality headsets, a phenomenon the Chicago Tribune once termed "Cybersickness." But virtual reality users aren't zonked out because of buggy technology -- it's because the experience is too real.
Playing Call of Duty, for example, can be intense, but a player is clearly detached from the in-game action. The immersiveness of newer VR headsets, however, can cause one to believe they're being shot at, or in a war zone. More advanced than their predecessors, 21st century virtual reality games like Hydra Cover Shooter and EVE: Valkyrie are so lifelike, they prompt physiological responses from users.
I know this might sound like the stuff of science fiction, but it's not. As headsets like Sony's (NYSE: SNE ) Project Morpheus and Facebook's (NASDAQ: FB ) Oculus Rift continue to be perfected, VR looks set to one day go mainstream. And it may have a future beyond gaming.
What else could virtual reality be used for?
Consider the case of the chicken. In an idea playfully proposed by Iowa State professor Austin Stewart, Second Livestock would combine the environmentally conscious value of free-range facilities and the "happy" chickens they produce with the cleanliness and cost-effectiveness of cages … by hooking chickens up to VR headsets and treadmills.
Stewart told the Ames Tribune that his goal is simply to get people thinking, although it does illustrate the awesome potential of VR technology.
The slightly more practical uses
Of course, there are other, more practical uses too. Besides gaming and poultry farming, video conferencing could take a giant leap forward. Current services, like Skype and Google Hangouts, typically rely on two-dimensional images and offer little in terms of cooperative, team-oriented task management. VR would allow everyone from marketing associates to magazine editors to work together in a physical space, even if they're hundreds of miles apart.
Naturally, it could also impact social networking. Given that Facebook now owns Oculus, it's not unreasonable to think that one day, the company could be much more than a web platform full of status updates and photos. In fact, CEO Mark Zuckerberg, shared his thoughts on the possibility of a virtual reality social network earlier this year:
"This is really a new communication platform. By feeling truly present, you can share unbounded spaces and experiences with the people in your life. Imagine sharing not just moments with your friends online, but entire experiences and adventures."
A first-person view of FarmVille may not sound too fun, but with Oculus, Facebook's options are endless. As Zuckerberg explains, "Imagine enjoying a court side seat at a game, studying in a classroom of students and teachers all over the world, or consulting with a doctor face-to-face -- just by putting on goggles in your home."
VR's impact on medicine and education isn't just theory. The National Institute of Mental Health, for example, already treats social anxiety with the technology. Early research on the ability of VR therapy to help post-traumatic stress disorder sufferers is also promising.
A company called EON Reality, meanwhile, is using the tech for educational purposes. With clients ranging from Carnegie Mellon to Imperial College London, EON reports VR can boost test scores and students' attention levels. It even offers teachers the ability to create their own 3D content.
How big could the market get?
Including all of these uses, research firm MarketsandMarkets expects the VR market to be worth a little over $1 billion by 2018. And given the possibility that other companies like Microsoft and Apple eventually jump on board, this forecast could be tame. Even if Project Morpheus and Oculus remain the market's two main players, both Sony and Facebook's scale should make mass adoption possible.
The Oculus Rift is expected to be released to consumers next year, and in an interview at E3, Oculus founder Palmer Luckey revealed the headset will be sold at cost. Whether that's $300, $500 or $1,000 remains to be seen, but worth noting is that the newest Oculus Rift developer kit is priced at $350. Project Morpheus, on the other hand, won't launch until 2015 or 2016 at the earliest, but a price for the Sony headset isn't likely to be far away from Facebook's device.
I don't have a crystal ball. But for my money, it seems likely the most tech-savvy consumers will adopt virtual reality first, led by gamers. Over a longer time frame, VR should also invade the average American's home in some sense. The only uncertainty seems to be how many markets will be disrupted.
With the benefits of VR already being felt in medicine and education, it isn't a stretch to think those areas will be affected too. The real x-factor, though, could be a VR social network. Given Facebook's connection with Oculus and Zuckerberg's enthusiasm to use the technology, we may one day have the ability to live in a realistic, virtual world.
That's a future everyone can look forward to ... just as long as we don't become the chicken.
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