At Zero Latency VR arcade in Vancouver, a group of gamers face down a horde of zombies. The group rushes through an abandoned skyscraper, making their way up the floors, dodging, and shooting the undead, all to reach the helicopter on the roof. When they meet the chopper, one of the post-apocalyptic survivors makes a jump for it – but falls over. In the real world, they leapt into thin air and onto the floor. But with the free-roam VR game, it felt real.
What shocks first-timers, Zero Latency Vancouver owner Winston Cabell says, is “how immersive it really is. You feel like you’re a part of it,” and not in a 1,900-square-foot space in a West Coast mall. Social media pages for the arcade show videos of users, fully invested in their digital escape, struggling to cross non-existent ramps high in the air or experiencing the shock and horror of monster armies careening toward them.
The availability and accessibility of virtual and augmented reality has accelerated over the past decade as consumer-grade headsets such as the PlayStation VR, the Oculus Meta Quest Two and the HTC Vive Pro 2′s full kit system hit the mainstream with retail prices of $299, $459 and $1,849, respectively. These headsets remain a niche gaming product in the eyes of most consumers.
But major investments from tech giants like Google, Meta and Amazon have garnered headlines and stoked public curiosity over the eventual mass adoption of the technology.
Facebook, which formally changed its name to Meta last October, has bet on VR after purchasing the Oculus headset company for US$2-billion in 2014 and announcing a US$10-billion investment in its Reality Labs in 2021.
Meta’s Project Cambria, announced late last year, will offer an all-in-one VR setup designed for work-related uses. Google previously invested in Google Glass, a set of AR glasses, while Amazon announced an AR “virtual try-on” function that shows how a new pair of shoes may look on your feet through your phone screen.
Researchers, while thrilled by the potential of VR and believing it to be on the cusp of mainstream saturation, say the technology is still in a stage of experimentation and development.
“We have pretty good consumer-grade tech, and now is the time where it’s going to be really exciting,” says Tony Tang, director at University of Toronto’s RICELab (Rethinking Interaction, Collaboration and Engagement), which studies human-computer interaction and technologies like VR. Still, though, Mr. Tang says, “it’s a bit of a mixed bag.”
At this stage, he says, VR and AR don’t solve any evident problems that smartphones and computers can’t. “For many of the things that we do, the phone you have in your pocket is perfectly capable of doing all the things that you want.”
However, Mr. Tang acknowledges the same could have been said in the early days of smartphones and touch screens. “Let’s be honest, many [early apps] were crappy games, but through that we were able to identify what kinds of games would work well on mobile,” he says, which ultimately drove the innovations for the apps we use and rely on every day.
“You might argue that VR and AR technologies haven’t found that killer app, that really niche thing that everybody actually needs.”
In the search for that ‘killer app,’ companies like Meta, Google and others have pursued partnerships with developers and research facilities such as Mr. Tang’s RICELab, which received $30,000 from Meta to explore emerging use cases. For example, RICELab member Warren Park is studying how business or academic presentations can be optimized in VR settings. RICELab’s $30,000 grant was part of a larger $510,000 Meta sent to 17 labs across the country.
“Many of these ideas are going to fail completely,” Mr. Tang says, though those failures can lead to future breakthroughs. “With other ideas, there could be a little nugget where it’s like: ‘oh, that might be kind of interesting.’ And then we build on that.”
University of Waterloo professor Lennart Nacke says that “while it hasn’t reached mainstream, [VR is] thriving in health care, automotive and all of these industries.” But to take that step beyond industrial or business-to-business applications and into the consumer realm, he says developers must leverage the immersion of VR with a strong narrative in their game, film or software.
Mr. Nacke, director of the Human-Computer Interaction Games group at Waterloo’s Games Institute who previously studied animation, draws comparisons between VR and CGI (computer-generated imagery) technology in video games and film. After 20-plus years of innovation and experimentation, it wasn’t until the release of Jurassic Park in 1993 that CGI would capture the public’s imagination. The film not only earned nearly US$1-billion at the box office but started a dinosaur-themed craze throughout the ‘90s that would even inspire the naming of the Toronto Raptors.
The seamless blend of advanced technology and gripping narrative propelled interest in CGI beyond the world of developers, programmers and animators and into pop culture. “It was one of these ‘aha’ moments,” Mr. Nacke says.
For VR to pierce its way into public consciousness, it must have a similar cultural moment, he explains. “But this whole idea of: ‘how do we make the next Jurassic Park moment for consumers?’ That hasn’t happened.”
From the printing press to radio, film, television and video games, the public appeal of these technologies has always been rooted in the universal pull of storytelling.
“Enabling that storytelling to the best of the ability of that technology is always what pushes forward that technology,” Mr. Nacke says.