The Democratization of Virtual Reality

Once as a pupil at my all-male state-school I was mocked during a history lesson on the ancient world for pointing out that the word “democracy” had its etymological roots in the ancient Greek word dêmos “people” and krátos “power”. In this instance I make no apology for such esoteric knowledge, as I cannot find a better word to describe what is happening this year to Virtual Reality. As with many gadgets we now take for granted, a substantial number were foreseen in works of speculative fiction, and even if they did exist, the cost of the technology made it accessible only to institutions or companies with large research budgets, or private individuals of considerable wealth with a penchant for the cutting edge, à la Richard Branson. What has driven down the prohibitive costs of producing head-mounted displays (HMDs) in recent years – and what has allowed for the first generation of powerful consumer HMDs – has largely been components developed for smart phones and tablets, allowing for cheaper and more lightweight high-density displays.

It is the increasing affordability of VR which is causing its democratization. Whereas in the past only certain laboratories and universities had a VR offering, this is all likely to change, with headsets which might have previously cost $50,000 now available for $500. Dr Andrew Glennerster at the University of Reading writes: “Recent developments in VR raise the prospect that high quality VR will soon be within the reach of most researchers in the field[1].”

What could be the biggest mass-market for VR is education. In his critically acclaimed novel Ready Player One, Ernest Cline writes of a dystopian future where students can learn in a virtual classroom to save them from a dangerous physical journey through a hazardous wasteland. Moreover, it gives teachers the added bonus of being able to silence students at the touch of a button, making behavioural issues a thing of the past, and giving students the ability to mute bullies – something I wish I could have done back in that history lesson. Herein lies the importance of VR in its current state and how it is starkly differentiated from other forms of media: the individual no longer sees something, they experience it. Kevin Kelly, co-founder of Wired magazine recently wrote: “With virtual reality and AI, what we’re going to get is an era of experiences, where we can not just know something, but feel it.[2]

When the system requirements for the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive were announced, many commentators demurred that the required PC hardware specs were prohibitively expensive for the majority of gamers, requiring many to upgrade to a $500 GFX card or completely replace their system. AMD recently announced a GFX card – the RX480 – which is VR-ready at the fraction of the cost of existing top-end hardware.

Next week, CONTEXT will be holding a VR summit at the British Museum in cooperation with Oculus, Dell, AMD, and others, to mark the beginning of what we consider to be a new epoch, an epoch of democratized VR, which will empower the young, old, students, researchers, and even those of modest income. What more fitting a venue than the British Museum which holds the treasures of the world’s first great democracies, to mark the arrival of revolutionary alternative and virtual realities available to far more than ever before.

 The CONTEXT VR Research Group which includes The University of Reading, Oculus, AMD, Dell and others mentioned in this article will be presenting demonstration technology and results from a major VR consumer study at The British Museum at 8am on 5th July 2016. If you are interested in attending please contact Charlotte Cornwell – ccornwell@contextworld.com.

[1] Peter Scarfe & Andrew Glennerster. “Using high-fidelity virtual reality to study perception in freely moving observers.” Journal of Vision (2015) 15(9):3, 1–11

[2] Carole Cadwalladr. “Digital Prophet Kevin Kelly: I’ve learned a lot from Spielberg”, The Observer, Sunday 12th June 2016

by JW

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