Virtual Reality Is Making Its Big Play for the Mainstream

But will it work?

Brendan McDermid / Reuters

It’s been a big few months for virtual reality.

Palmer Luckey, the plucky inventor of the Oculus Rift, made the cover of the August issue of Time magazine. In September, his employer, Facebook, debuted the first consumer-ready virtual-reality headset at the Academy Awards’s Dolby Theater (a resonant venue for showing off a technology you’re pushing as the next great entertainment platform). Three weeks later, CNN broadcast the democratic debates in virtual reality, followed shortly thereafter by the NBA seating virtual viewers courtside to watch Steph Curry score 53 points on opening night.

In the midst of it all, Rihanna released a virtual-reality music video.

“VR is finally here,” pronounced Oculus CEO Brendan Iribe at the September conference. And for some—notably the 1.3 million New York Times subscribers who received a VR headset with their Sunday paper earlier this week—it is. But the truth is that most people have still never even put on a virtual-reality headset.

Despite the tech community’s enthusiasm for virtual reality’s growing momentum, the most common reaction for those hearing about it for the first time is still bemused disbelief. Much of the skepticism springs from a sense that sitting in a room alone with a machine over your head would be strange.

But strangeness was also a criticism leveled at another bizarre new technology that went on to play a central role in our homes.

“Leaders of the television industry, in their more enthusiastic moments, have suggested that ultimately the television set may replace the fireplace as a focal point of interest in the living room,” reads an article in The New York Times from 1949. “In terms of interior decoration, there may be difficulty in deciding which should come first.”

Today, of course, 97 percent of American homes have a television and walking into a living room without one as its centerpiece can be, frankly, confusing. It’s hard to fathom that before TV’s invention only a few decades ago, the fireplace reigned uninterrupted as humanity’s literal hearth for more than 100,000 years.

Now, just two generations since we rearranged our living rooms to accommodate a new technology, there are early rumblings that virtual reality may ask us to do so again.

In exchange for the superpower to instantly transport you anywhere you can imagine, virtual reality asks that you place a headset over your eyes, blinding you to your immediate surroundings.

“If I want to set up a walking-around VR experience, I’m clearing out maybe a living room-sized space,” says Bruce Wooden, an influential VR evangelist and head of developer relations at AltSpaceVR, a social virtual-reality company. “A segment of this early-adopter, hardcore-gamer population, that’s what they’re going to do. They’re definitely going to have VR rooms.”

But Facebook didn’t buy Oculus Rift for $2 billion last year just to give hardcore gamers more immersive games to play in empty living rooms. Mark Zuckerberg sees virtual reality as the logical next step along the path we’re taking toward a world entirely connected by social media: First we shared text, then photos, and now video. Why wouldn’t the next phase of that evolution be an immersive technology that allows other people to actually go where you’ve been? And if it means rearranging some furniture in the home to advance the collective human experience, so be it. Whether that happens at a massive scale is anybody’s guess, but the virtual-reality community is beginning to make the case.

In the coming months, consumers will be confronted with a flood of virtual-reality headsets, ranging in price and quality from Google’s literal cardboard boxes to Oculus’s sophisticated and still-handmade headsets. Before Thanksgiving, Samsung will release Gear VR, a headset that works with Samsung phones, to offer the first higher-end virtual-reality hardware on the market. By next spring, Oculus, PlayStation, and HTC will debut their own dedicated VR platforms. Other players, notably Apple, may reportedly join the fray thereafter.

Even the most optimistic virtual reality enthusiasts acknowledge that mainstream adoption will take time. But that doesn’t mean virtual-reality executives aren’t bullish.

“VR opens up a whole new universe of possibilities,” said Oculus’s chief scientist Michael Abrash, who helped design the first Windows operating system in the 1990s. “Once you’ve experienced it, it’s obvious that it’s going to change the world in a big way.”

In virtual-reality circles, that’s something you hear over and over again. Reading about the technology or watching videos of people using the technology simply can’t do it justice. “The level of understanding between that and having used the product for literally 45 seconds is vast,” said Eric Romo, the founder and CEO of AltspaceVR, a social virtual-reality company. “You’re talking about an order of magnitude. In a really short period of time, the light bulb goes off.”

That kind of you don’t get it certainty can breed a certain here we go again reaction in our age of The Next Big Thing, especially since we already watched an earlier round of virtual-reality hype rise and fall as recently as the ‘90s. But today’s virtual reality is unlike anything that’s come before it. It allows you to walk into Van Gogh’s The Night Café in one moment and follow Bill Clinton into a Kenyan classroom in the next. In AltspaceVR, you can actually make eye contact with a friend halfway around the world. And with Oculus’s controllers for each of your hands—and this is really where it becomes impossible to believe until you try it—you forget about your physical separations as you swat a ping-pong ball back and forth across the virtual table.

The VR evangelists refer to that feeling of forgetting the real world as “presence.” And they say virtual reality’s success depends on truly making people feel that they’re where the headset says they are.

Of course, while virtual reality can easily put you on a beach, it can’t give you the feeling of sand beneath your feet, wind against your face or the smells of the salty sea air (though Oculus’s Abrash has, in complete seriousness, challenged developers to tackle those senses in the coming decades.) But its limitations might not matter. Sight and sound are enough for most experiences, like talking in a room with your friends, watching a concert or attending a baseball game. And if you’re virtually experiencing something you otherwise wouldn’t in real life—like a trip to the International Space Station or a trek up Mount Everest—two senses are probably better than none.

Before presence makes or breaks virtual reality’s future, however, the first step is actually getting headsets on people in the first place, said Jason Rubin, head of worldwide studios at Oculus.

“Any new technology has a lot of challenges, not the least of which is just making people aware that you exist,” he said. “It’s really hard to get headsets on hundreds of millions of people.”

Unlike other disruptive technologies, there’s simply no reference point for virtual reality. Smartphones had flip phones, which had home phones before them. Computers initially looked like TVs you could interact with and TVs were thought of as radios that you could watch. Virtual reality both looks and functions like a completely foreign technology.

But in the run-up to 2016, companies that already command much of our attention have made announcements that will likely make its introduction easier. In September, Disney led a $65 million round of investment in Jaunt, a cinematic virtual-reality company. Comcast’s venture-capital arm helped raise $10 million for AltspaceVR.

“We like to say entertainment is going to drive this medium,” Rubin said. “In the long run, travel, education, architecture, medicine—all of these things are going to take advantage of VR. But VR is going to enter people’s lives first as an entertainment medium.”

If they do, it’s likely that Google Cardboard, the $20 headset that works with any phone and offers a surprisingly immersive experience for a cardboard box, will be the gateway drug. The Gear VR, while a more immersive and technically impressive experience, only works with two models of Samsung phones for now. The dedicated headsets, which provide the presence that phone-based virtual reality can’t fully achieve, still include cumbersome wires, require a high powered PC or console, and simply aren’t ready for mass adoption yet.

“Mobile VR will be successful long before PC VR goes wireless,” Palmer Luckey, Oculus’s inventor, recently tweeted. But in another interview, he predicted that eventually virtual reality will be “more ubiquitous” than smartphones.

Is he right?

If the “largest communal screening of a virtual-reality film ever” is any indication, the answer is likely to be yes. The Times’s experiment to send 1.3 million Google Cardboard headsets across the country to debut a virtual-reality documentary led to an outpouring of Instagrams, Tweets and think pieces that expressed a feeling summed up nicely by Wired’s Marcus Wohlson: “Experiencing VR for the first time isn’t just cool; it’s revelatory.”

I spent my first VR experience—watching a man smoke a cigarette and play the piano—partially in awe of what I was seeing, but even more awed by what I might see in the future. It’s intoxicating to imagine a world where we record virtual-reality videos as often as we take photos now, where every moment is not just shareable, but experienceable.

The Times’s documentary brought more than a million people into the lives of child refugees. Many hold out hope that virtual reality can be an empathy engine that bridges the gaps in understanding between people—whether that’s refugees in Syria and New York Times subscribers, police and the communities they serve, or even simply a boss and an employee. Others just want to be able to watch Netflix with their friend who lives across the country.

Virtual reality is already making some of this possible—before any of the sophisticated headsets have even gone on sale. That in itself is remarkable. But as for whether VR headsets will become as ubiquitous as smartphones, only time will tell.