3 min read

Why Virtual Reality Finally Went Mainstream

Why Virtual Reality Finally Went Mainstream
Palmer Luckey, founder of Oculus VR, using the consumer edition of the Oculus Rift

Since 2013, more than twelve million VR headsets have been sold and an estimated 200 million more will be sold by 2020. But virtual reality itself is nothing new. Nearly 50 years ago, Ivan Sutherland created the first VR and AR head-mounted display system — the Sword of Damocles. So what explains it’s sudden surge in popularity?

While the concept is old, several recent advancements opened VR to widespread appeal: headsets became portable and affordable, and video quality increased.

Portability: VR Became Mobile

The Sword of Damocles HMD system, Ivan Sutherland, 1968

The Sword worked similarly to today’s headsets, using head-tracking to match computer graphics with the viewer’s perspective, but computer technology couldn’t be packed into a small headset at that time. In fact, the Sword, which got its name from its shape, was so heavy it had to be hung from the ceiling in order to wear it.

Of course over time, our computers have gotten smaller and our mobile phones became smartphones, making it possible to fit VR technology into light, wireless headsets. Instead of having to strap ourselves into a VR arcade machine like in the 1990s, we can simply slip our phones into a headset to experience the wonder of virtual reality. VR needed the mobility of today’s world in order to gain mass appeal.

VR Timeline (1)

Affordability: Headset Prices Declined

A few years ago, virtual reality was barely on the public’s radar, but now headsets are everywhere. A big part of this has to do with more affordable headsets being mass-produced. Besides the twelve million already sold, over five million Google Cardboard viewers had shipped by last January. That’s not surprising considering the New York Times gave out thousands of Cardboards to their subscribers and the viewers only go for $15 online. The Oculus Rift costs almost $600, and it’s arguably the most advanced headset on the market, but people that just want to test out a VR headset that’s better than the Cardboard can get a Samsung Gear for only $100. And companies like T-Mobile have even been giving these away for free!

A Samsung Gear VR promotion showing surfing in 360°

Higher Quality Video: Virtual Reality Got More Real

The Nintendo Virtual Boy, a VR headset released for consumers in 1995, was more portable than any system before it, but it was a commercial failure due to poor video quality and high prices. The point of virtual reality is to feel like you are somewhere else when you’re watching it, and low-quality video doesn’t look like the real world. Headsets need high-quality graphics in order to simulate an environment that feels realistic to viewers. It wasn’t until 2010 that one young inventor began working to overcome this issue.

That year, 18-year-old Palmer Luckey designed the first prototype of the Oculus Rift in his parent’s garage. Built on the shell of an older VR headset, Luckey’s prototype wasn’t high quality, but it renewed the tech community’s interest in VR.

Oculus Acquisition: Facebook Bets Big on VR

However, it was Facebook that really changed the future of VR quality when it bought Luckey’s company in 2014. While developers had already been working on building quality headsets for a couple years and GoPros became some of the best-known, high-quality cameras for filming 360° videos, the acquisition sent a signal to the world that big technology companies were ready to invest in producing high-quality 360° videos and VR headsets for consumer use. This led to a rapid acceleration in VR development that spurred Youtube and Facebook to support 360° video. And filmmakers got busy making them and creating demand for higher-quality 360° cameras.

With higher-quality graphics and more computing power at much lower prices, today’s VR headsets have finally made Ivan Sutherland’s vision of creating immersive, virtual worlds a reality.