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Virtual Reality, Past and Present (AAPL)

seymour_greenz • June 29th 2015 01:23:43 AM

August, 1992. My friend and I are waiting in line at the mall to play a new game called "Dactyl Nightmare". I read about it months prior in a computer magazine, introducing it as the first "virtual reality" arcade game in existence. I feel a sense of excitement to try a new technology and a touch of pride as the system is powered by an Amiga computer. Back then, chances are you were loyal to one of the four big computers: Amiga, Atari ST, Apple or PC - and I was most certainly in the Amiga camp.

Our turn. The headset is extremely heavy and cumbersome. The graphics are crude and the framerate is low - no better than many of the Amiga games I played on a daily basis. Perhaps worse? Sound chimes and echos from the headset, letting us know the "action" is about to begin. I begin to get accustomed and then start to notice the lag. Lag as in when I turn my head it doesn't update instantly, maybe a fraction or so of a second later. How much was this costing? Something like $10 for 5 minutes? Ugh.

The next few minutes are spent awkwardly chasing my friend around a sparse atrium of floating platforms. Actually, it would be more accurate to describe it as "trying to locate him". I hear and occasionally see a flying creature overhead, sort of a distraction or an annoyance. I assume it is the pterodactyl from the title and that it's intended to be unpredictable and frightening. I spot my friend. He's slowly wandering, and cluelessly looking away from me, then gazing up at the sky, then back down at the ground. Working my way closer to him I almost feel bad as I raise my crude, blocky-shaped gun, maybe just a virtual yard away at this point. He's still looking at the ground. Technical difficulties or just lack of coordination? Doesn't matter. I squeeze the trigger and a what looks like a "potato gem" lobs off of the gun towards the hapless victim, with all the finesse of throwing a rock. It's a direct hit. He explodes into a shower of faceted parts. Rinse and repeat for the next four minutes.

This was disappointing. A waste of money. Certainly not anything close to reality. Besides the technology being immature and half-baked the game itself was awful. Let's try this again in a couple of decades?

Enter Facebook Oculus and the next generation of virtual reality. The technology has improved immensely, perhaps by a couple of orders of magnitude or more. Gone are the crude, flat and blocky graphics in low resolution, replaced with beautifully detailed, richly textured renderings in high resolution.

Finally, it seems the VR experience is now capable of being viable and believable. Has the gameplay gotten any better though?

Facebook is betting big on virtual reality, but I just don't see it quite yet. Sure the graphics are impressive, but no more so than a garden-variety PS4 game. In fact, take your pick of The Last of Us: Remastered, Uncharted 4, or Grand Theft Auto 5. Any of those are far superior to anything I've seen running on Oculus so far. On the other hand, the tracking technology is now sans lag, which is a very good thing. Our old adage friend "content is king" seems ever more inescapable and appropriate.

I think virtual reality is a lot closer now than it was on that hazy summer afternoon in the early 90s. I'm convinced, though, that it will need a "killer app" to gain market acceptance and advance in popularity. Do we have such an app yet? What could it be?

For starters, let's look at killer apps for some other platforms and networks.

Atari 2600 - Tank, Pitfall
PC - Visicalc, Wordperfect
Amiga - Video Toaster, Lightwave
PS4 - Grand Theft Auto 5
Netflix - House of Cards

What do these killer apps have in common? What do they leverage of their underlying systems?

You can be sure that the killer app for virtual reality will have some or all of these characteristics. Does it exist yet? If not, maybe it's time to start making it.

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