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A VR pioneer talks about the near end of virtual reality in the late nineties and the resurrection of VR headsets – thanks to Apple.
In the early 90’s, Louis Rosenberg founded VR startup Immersion Corporation. Rosenberg’s years of research in VR labs at Stanford University as well as NASA and the U.S. Air Force convinced him that virtual reality was on the cusp of a breakthrough. The Internet followed.
Virtual reality: From the next big hit to VR Winter
“I was sure VR would be widely adopted within a decade. I know this sounds wildly optimistic, but it didn’t feel that way at the time,” Rosenberg wrote in a blog post. This view was not shared by everyone.
According to him, the creation of VR trade shows, conferences and magazines in the late 80s and early 90s was a catalyst for a vibrant industry. Many within the industry believed VR would be mainstream in ten years.
In the mid-1990s, VR enthusiasm peaked and the industry fell into what Rosenberg calls “the VR winter.” From 1997 to 2012, he says, venture capitalists didn’t take you seriously if you even mentioned the term virtual reality. Many of the pioneering VR technologies were lost to the technology companies that emerged in the early days of VR.
The virtual reality star was killed by the Internet
Rosenberg has multiple answers when Rosenberg is asked why. “The typical answer is that it was over-hyped, with hardware that was too expensive, and fidelity that wasn’t good enough. While true facts, they don’t explain why VR totally fell off the map.”
According to Rosenberg, the Internet was what nearly destroyed virtual reality in the nineties. “In the late ’80s and early ’90s, VR was ‘the next big thing’ in Silicon Valley. But in 1995, the Internet suddenly took off, grabbing the crown in a massive way,” Rosenberg recollects.
The term “virtual reality” quickly became old news and the target of jokes about failed markets, he says. A few companies managed to survive by focusing their efforts on similar markets.
To survive, VR companies needed to adapt
Immersion was looking for ways to market its technologies outside of virtual reality. “Our mission was to create affordable immersive interfaces, complete with precise manual tracking and realistic haptic feedback. But when the markets for general-pupose VR didn’t materialize, we had to adapt, focusing on opportunities that were viable at the time.”
Immersion developed a mechanical arms as an input device to VR applications. It was very useful for digitizing 3D objects in virtual worlds due to its spatial accuracy. This was then used to create 3D videos and 3D movies. 3D, unlike VR, was a popular feature in movies and games at the time.
“This pushed us to develop a product called the Microscribe 3D that enabled artists and animators to quickly turn physical objects into 3D models with high accuracy,” Rosenberg explains. Microscribe 3D is used in many feature films like Shrek and Ice Age.
Surgical training is the second most important.
Immersion was also the first company to offer haptic joysticks and computer mice. Rosenberg also reached out to companies in the medical sector.
“We partnered with medical experts and developed VR interfaces for specific medical procedures, including laparoscopic surgery, endoscopic surgery, bronchoscopy, and even spinal epidurals – all with realistic haptic feedback.”
He said that these systems were used by renowned medical schools all over the globe in the late nineties to teach surgeons in surgical procedures. VR in medicine today is a multi-billion dollar market.
Apple’s iPhone saves virtual reality
The VR winter continued well into the 2000s. Many believe that Palmer Luckey, who launched Oculus VR in 2012, founded the second VR and brought virtual reality back to the forefront. According to Rosenberg, however, it was another product that laid the decisive foundation for the resurgence of VR headsets years earlier: Apple’s iPhone.
The launch of Apple’s first smartphone in 2007, he says, brought the cost of small, lightweight, high-quality screens down to a level that finally made VR viable for consumers. Apple is currently working on its VR headset.
“Smartphones also drove down the cost of motion sensors, processors, and other components needed for VR hardware. Google made this point brilliantly in 2014 when they launched Google Cardboard, a headset built entirely from a smartphone and a foldable piece of cardboard,” Rosenberg said.
The metaverse isn’t all clunky VR headsets and cartoon avatars
Rosenberg claims that the OculusVR headset’s success has helped virtual reality gain credibility and become more attractive to investors. Still, he says, a healthy skepticism remained among experts that the hype of the ’90s, with its unrealistic timetables and market forecasts, was repeating itself.
“And while that was probably true, there was one big difference during this second VR surge – it wasn’t just startups pushing the vision, it was major corporations,” Rosenberg explains. Today, it’s the term “metaverse” in particular that threatens to perish from its own hype and lose credibility.
Rosenberg is nevertheless confident that immersive media will outstrip “flat media” by 2030. However, current efforts to establish metaverse platforms, such as Horizon Worlds, are not the future, he stated. “I don’t believe most adults will spend countless hours wearing VR headsets to control cartoon avatars in cartoon worlds.”
He said that while augmented reality will be a popular form for social entertainment, there are other things that will transform society. “I’m convinced that augmented reality, enabled by lightweight eyewear, will create an AR metaverse that will transform our lives, replacing phones and desktops as our primary interface to digital content. Sure, I’ve got the timing wrong before, but this time the momentum is unstoppable – another winter is not coming.”
Find out more about virtual reality’s history.
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