Is VR dead?

No, and it doesn’t even smell funny.

But let’s back up a bit. When it comes to VR, there are three prevalent opinions:

  1. It’s a dead technology. It had its day in the early nineties, and there hasn’t been anything new since. After all, the CAVE was invented in ’91 and is basically still the same, and head-mounted displays have been around even longer.
  2. It hasn’t been born yet. But maybe if we wait 10 more years, and there are some significant breakthroughs in display and computer technology, it might become interesting or feasible.
  3. It’s fringe technology. Some weirdos keep picking at it, but it hasn’t ever led to anything interesting or useful, and never will.

Where do these come from? A basic observation is that VR means many different things to many different people. Some might understand VR as what’s depicted in movies like the Matrix, and, to be honest, as what it has been described by early evangelists like Jaron Lanier, and if they’re looking for a computer-generated environment that’s completely indistinguishable from reality, then we’re obviously not there yet (and may never be). Others might think of VR as a research area depending on development of new display and interaction technologies, and if there are no new toys, there’s nothing to research (the “helmet and glove” set, as one might call them). And from their point of view it’s right: there hasn’t been anything new in ages. CAVEs? Been there, done that. Oculus Rift? Head-mounted displays are so ’90s. 3D TVs? Just bigger 3D monitors, same as in the old CRT days. And who thinks of VR as fringe? I guess that’s pretty much everybody else.

So if VR is dead (or not born yet, or a never-been-never-will-be, depending on who you ask), how come I’ve been fielding an increasing number of requests to assist with the construction of VR environments? Just in the last two months, I have

  • helped a University of California campus purchase a 4-sided CAVE,
  • assisted a NASA research lab revitalizing an old CAVE that had fallen into disuse,
  • consulted with a group of researchers from Estonia building a DIY CAVE from scratch,
  • talked to a research group at Brigham Young University who want to build a large holographic display out of many 3D TVs,
  • made suggestions on a CAVE-like setup at the University of Florida,
  • discussed options for a CAVE-like VR system with a geoscience research group in Mexico.

Are all these people blinded by marketing? No, what they’ve all found out is that VR, exactly as it is today, is useful. Their (very pragmatic, I must say) view of VR is that of a different, very effective, way to interact with computers for applications based on complex and/or large 3D data sets, as they are common in many sciences. In other words, for them, VR is just a good way to get their work done. And that’s as it should be. Let me put that in boldface:

VR is just a different, very effective, way to interact with computers for 3D applications. It gets stuff done.

If VR allows you to analyze a data set, say a high-resolution 3D laser scan of a tectonic fault line, in less time and at higher accuracy than you could before, then who cares if you’re doing it on technology that’s 20 years old? Automobiles are 120 year old technology, and that doesn’t stop anybody from buying them. And there are more examples of successful applications of VR where the above came from.

So why is this happening now? One reason is that VR technology has not only aged, it has also matured. A CAVE ca. 1992 was a fickle instrument that required constant care and supervision. Non-VR researchers couldn’t just come in and use it whenever they wanted. There had to be someone there using it for them, and that’s not how you get science done. These days, a CAVE is a scientific instrument like many others. It’s still a very complex one, but tell someone operating a gas chromatographer/mass spectrometer that their instrument is not complex, and see what happens (hint: run fast). At KeckCAVES, users (undergrads, grads, post-docs, faculty) can sign up for CAVE time via a Google calendar. When it’s their turn, they walk in, log into the console computer, click on an icon to start the CAVE projectors, prepare their data, start whatever CAVE application they want to use, use it, shut down the projectors and put away the input devices, log out, and leave. There’s nobody there holding their hands or supervising them, or using the applications for them. Obviously, users have to be trained on how to use the CAVE, but that’s the same as with any other instrument. Bottom line is, it just works.

But there might be another reason serious applications of VR are gaining steam only now. I personally believe that Virtual Reality, as a scientific field inside computer science and at the intersection of computer graphics and human-computer interaction, has focused too much on how to make VR itself better, and focused too little on how to to take what exists and make other things better with it. I’ve found that many VR researchers themselves are in the opinion 2 set, always saying they’ll look into applications once VR is good enough, always five years in the future (some of the more jaded ones might be of opinion 1 or 3).

And if you’re selling the future, it might be hard to find people to invest time or money. I found that you can’t show potential users VR and say “look at this cool technology, and imagine what it could do for you.” What you’ll have to say instead is “look at this cool technology, and what it can do for you right now.” I think this is why VR as a field has been turning inwards more and more. VR hasn’t been picked up by users in the past, so some VR people stopped trying. I’ve noticed that at the annual IEEE VR conference, and that’s why I’m not going to that very much. In some cases, I’ve even detected a whiff of bitterness or hostility towards potential users.

One extreme example comes to mind. A PhD student who shall remain nameless had been to a KeckCAVES open house, and was making fun of the “little girl” who was demonstrating how she used the CAVE in her research. He stated that while she might have been very excited about it that day, that surely would have worn off about three weeks later, and that users are typically excited about VR until you ask them for money, when they run away. There was definitely some resentment under that thick layer of sexism. What he didn’t know was that the CAVE was instrumental in this “little girl’s” PhD research, that she had been using the CAVE for about a year at that time, and that those dreaded users had not only bought and paid for the CAVE, but were also paying my salary. Typical? I sure hope not.

So what’s to be done? First, let’s stop using the words “Virtual Reality,” or the VR tag. Its meaning is so nebulous that two people talking about VR might talk about entirely different things. I’ve called it “immersive visualization,” to make clear it’s about visualization, i.e., science, but the term “immersive” has its own problems. Suggestions, please.

But more importantly, more VR researchers have to roll up their sleeves and start developing useful immersive visualization applications. “Applied science” is looked down upon in academia, and to many beginning PhD students it might not seem very exciting, or too much work, but trust me, it’s worth it, and it’s necessary. It’s the only way to make VR work, as a whole. Once there are enough applications to attract a large user base, there will also be interest in (and money for) basic research.

We also need common approaches, i.e., a common “look & feel” to VR software, ideally provided by a common software infrastructure. But I’ve said way too much about that already.

So get cracking.

13 thoughts on “Is VR dead?

  1. That’s interesting. I’ve never thought of VR as happening right now. So you’re saying people are using it as just another tool? Why doesn’t anybody else talk about this?

    On that note, how come you haven’t posted this article on “virtual reality” on reddit? That way it would be easier to find. I only stumbled upon it when I read the AR sandbox post.

    • The fact that people are not talking about this is really part of the problem; the other part is that not too many have come around to this pragmatic way of looking at it. There’s really not much software around that allows to use VR as a tool. There’s just really not that much VR software around, period. I’m working very hard trying to change that.

      Re: reddit. I’ve gotten a lot of page views through there, but it feels a bit skeevy spamming my own stuff all over the virtual reality subreddit. I started getting more downvotes on my submissions, and I don’t want to outstay my welcome.

      You can always subscribe to this blog; I won’t send anything except new post announcements.

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  6. I really enjoy your blog and I hope you keep it up.

    I’m a researcher in scientific visualization, but like you find myself often working on related – but different technologies. I’ve primarily been focused on large, high-resolution displays, but a year ago I heard about the Oculus in forums pre-Kickstarter and became hooked in the idea of immersive visualization.

    To my great surprise, using the term VR in my research field has drawn many negative reactions. I like the idea of immersive visualization and I see great promise in it, but being fairly new to these fields I was not aware of the history of VR. I like the idea of immersive visualization and will be using that terminology moving forward.


    • It’s a huge problem. The words “VR” or “CAVE” are almost instantaneous proposal and paper killers. I think a lot of researchers (and reviewers) are really angry about having invested money into VR in the past, for less than ideal results. Lots of CAVEs being taken down or mothballed.

      I really believe that what we are doing is fundamentally different from what hasn’t worked in the past, but once the code word comes up, nobody reads on. I’ve been using “immersive visualization” for the specific subfield of scientific visualization in VR environments in the past, and I’ve now decided to refer to VR displays such as CAVEs or head-mounted displays (as long as they’re done properly) as “holographic displays.” I don’t think that I’m abusing or watering down the term, because a well-done VR display looks exactly like a “real” hologram in every aspect except multi-viewer and accommodation, and that’s close enough for me.

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    • Re-reading this just now, it’s surprising how much things haven’t changed. I still see the exact three arguments I listed at the top all over the place. There’s obviously much more overall awareness of VR, but while more people have heard of it now, most still don’t believe it’s for real, or don’t understand what it does, and how massively it changes how we interact with computers.

      I wrote this article from the perspective of a scientific user of VR. Commodity VR is — at least for now — all about gaming, but if you look around the gaming press and blogosphere, there’s just as much skepticism and outright hostility towards VR for gaming as there has been in the science / scientific visualization community towards VR for scientific use.

      It’s funny how, if you peel away the gaming veneer, the core arguments against VR are exactly the same: “we’ve always done it this way, why change,” “existing mechanics and interfaces don’t translate to VR, therefore VR won’t work,” “how could anything new possibly be better than what we already have,” etc.

      The main way how my view has changed that there are now alternative methods of doing VR that are much cheaper than CAVEs et al., and are very close to the point where they will be practical replacements. I am honestly surprised it happened this quickly. I wish they were practical replacements right now, because we need to replace our old system right now. 🙂

      • You would know the field much better than I, but from a layman’s perspective, for all the griping, there seems to be an incredible amount of actual business activity as well.
        Thanks for commenting!

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