When virtual reality (VR) hit the mainstream around 2016, many people thought it was a game-changing technology and got terribly excited.
The Oculus Rift, which began life as a Kickstarter project before being purchased by Facebook, hit the shelves and promptly became the poster gadget for a tech revolution.
Others soon followed. Google Cardboard, HTC Vive, PlayStation VR and Oculus Go all extended the possibilities of consumer VR.
Assorted experts told us VR would change the world. More than mere entertainment, it would prove useful in training, education and even surgery. Films were released in VR formats and game after game was produced.
And then, at some point between mid-2017 and mid-2018 it all went terribly quiet.
However, there’s evidence that rumours of VR’s demise have been greatly exaggerated…
The current state of the market
To be fair, virtual reality has never gone away for some applications. Training companies, for example, have continued to use it enthusiastically.
But consumers have been slower to adopt it, partly due to broadband speeds and an internet culture that favours streaming.
Streaming (or even just downloading) VR content uses lots of bandwidth. And that’s why the big streaming companies have held back on producing it.
But since then there has been something of a boom in data centre construction, with more fibre broadband. And people are starting to talk enthusiastically about virtual reality again.
The price of VR headsets has fallen, and new models have been launched, including several that support streaming directly to the device.
Several gaming platforms now stream live VR games, including Twitch and Steam.
Critically, the technology underneath VR has improved. Better lenses, images and tracking all help to create a more immersive and fluent experience.
The 2019 Vive Pro Eye has eye tracking so good that users can complete many tasks using eye movement alone, leaving their hands free to wield a tennis racket or fight zombies.
Perhaps mindful of its reputation, some companies are now referring to ‘mixed reality’, which is basically a fusion of VR and augmented reality (AR).
It takes the immersive nature of virtual reality even further and paves the way for almost limitless combinations of VR, AR, controllers and sensors.
Microsoft launched a mixed reality line at the end of 2018, which works with Windows 10.
Acer, HP, Dell, Asus and Samsung have already produced headsets for use with Windows mixed reality.
An impressive line-up of content partners suggest Microsoft sees a very bright future for VR, at least within mixed reality.
Google also has a VR initiative, and Facebook has expressed interest in creating VR apps.
If you’re appy and you know it…
Steam has an app called Whirlygig that lets Oculus Rift owners stream full VR videos with a rotating 360-degree display and 3D.
Meanwhile, YouTube has had a virtual reality player and app for some time.
In July 2019, Amazon launched its Prime VR app. This allows Prime customers to stream content direct to headsets and search it by voice.
Now, some say that cloud gaming in VR could soon become a reality.
Meanwhile, for UK consumers, the roll-out of full-fibre broadband is making streamed VR content a much more attractive and realistic proposition.
This year has seen the release of some great VR games. Coupled with the plethora of headsets now on sale, it’s entirely possible VR is about to enter an exciting second stage.
Far from being a gimmick, virtual reality is back. And this time it might actually change the world.