The 5 Biggest Misconceptions About Virtual Reality

July 20, 2016

As a concept, virtual reality is by no means new. Remember that old View-Master toy you had as a kid, how you could stare through the lenses for hours as you flicked your way through breathtaking landscapes, gazing on with wonder as if you were actually there? That was an early, rudimentary application of virtual reality. Now, in 2016, virtual reality technology is having a breakout moment, poised to become one of the hottest tech trends in recent memory.

As a concept, virtual reality is by no means new. Remember that old View-Master toy you had as a kid, how you could stare through the lenses for hours as you flicked your way through breathtaking landscapes, gazing on with wonder as if you were actually there? That was an early, rudimentary application of virtual reality. Now, in 2016, virtual reality technology is having a breakout moment, poised to become one of the hottest tech trends in recent memory. The conversation about VR’s massive potential began when Facebook bought Oculus in a billion-dollar blockbuster acquisition back in 2014, and 2016 marks the real coming out party, with the “big three” VR devices—Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, and PS VR—all being released commercially at some point this year. Now, it seems like everyone is talking about and investing heavily in VR technology, a phenomenon more or less proven true at this year’s CES, where, by all accounts, VR was at the center of everyone’s attention.

(Image: Polygon)

Make no mistake, virtual reality is here to stay. Because of its usual association with films like The Matrix, though, there are still all sorts of misunderstandings and misgivings about this potentially huge technology. Before you cast your final judgment, be sure to read up on the 5 biggest misconceptions about virtual reality technology.

1. VR Devices are Expensive

Assuming that brand new technological devices will be very expensive upon first hitting the commercial market is not necessarily unfounded. The precedent for new technologies dictates that they should be expensive: the original 4GB iPhone cost buyers $499 back in 2007. While people easily shell out that kind of money on mobile devices now, that was a crazy amount of money for what most at the time considered to be just a cell phone with a fancy shell.

VR devices don’t subscribe to this economic model. Not always, at least. In fact, you can find VR devices at just about any price point. Make no mistake, VR devices can be expensive—the top-of-the-line Oculus Rift and HTC Vive will run you $599 and $799, respectively, assuming you already have an up-to-date VR-ready PC—but there are also a number of choices out there if you’re looking for a more affordable VR experience. Google Cardboard, for example, is exactly what it sounds like, a cardboard fold-out VR device that attaches to your smartphone and acts as a VR viewfinder. The Zeiss VR One, Samsung’s Gear VR, and the Homido device, while slightly more expensive than Google Cardboard, offer a similarly simple model that’s easy to install and use with your mobile device.

Now, as with anything, there’s a get-what-you-pay-for dynamic at play—Google Cardboard, which will run you about $20-$30, and similar affordable options are limited mostly to 360-degree video viewing, and there is little in the way of enhanced graphics, gaming capabilities, or even comfort—but the idea that VR is only affordable as a plaything for the wealthy just isn’t true.

2. VR is Only Applicable to Gamers

There’s a popular misconception out there that the only people who will really be interested in VR devices are hardcore gamers who are looking for a more immersive gaming experience. Again, there’s a shred of truth to this misconception: the mainstream conversation surrounding VR today mostly deals with virtual reality’s impact on the gaming industry. And with Playstation’s VR, which is intended for gaming, hitting the market later this fall and Oculus Rift’s main applications currently being game-centric, it’s not totally incorrect to assume that, at least from a commercial perspective, gaming is currently one of the most popular and in-demand applications for VR technology. VR offers gamers the long-desired possibility of truly being a part of the game, meaning you are the one fighting off the zombies, not the digital character you’re controlling on the screen. While many early VR games are mostly novelties á la Wii Sports in its heyday, we’re already seeing big titles like Final Fantasy make the VR leap, and projections estimate that the VR video game industry could haul in over $5 billion by the time 2016 is over.

It is, however, incorrect to say that VR is only impacting the gaming industry. In fact, if the widespread potential applications of this technology are as feasible as they’re reported to be, then gaming could end up being just a small niche of the VR market. For example, in Japan, researchers at the Aichi University of Technology are currently experimenting with a VR program that simulates a tsunami striking the mainland. By utilizing the fully immersive nature of the VR experience, the hope is that the program will both lessen the tendency in people to panic by offering a realistic simulation and help train people to familiarize themselves with what actually happens during a tsunami—how the current behaves, how to seek higher ground, and other things one can only truly learn from experience. There’s even research being conducted regarding the clinical uses of VR technology. A study from the Royal College of Psychiatrists in England has explored the uses of VR to help people suffering from depression by simulating an experience with an upset child, in which the patient is encouraged to show compassion and empathy by comforting the youth.

The truth is, while VR is not a new concept, its applications are still being explored, and gaming is just the tip of the iceberg.

3. It’s Just Like Being Inside A Movie

Even for those who are excited about the rise of VR, there’s confusion about what exactly a VR experience is like. It is a little tough to conceptualize, given that it’s meant to replicate as closely as possible your field of vision while still being an entirely digital experience placing you in a completely fabricated world. It’s somewhat similar to watching a movie, but the plane between screen and viewer has been collapsed, so while it’s easy to say, “It’s like being inside the Millennium Falcon’s cockpit,” it’s a little harder to really visualize what that means in practice.

While that may be an easier idea to wrap our heads around, being inside the action of a movie is not technically the most accurate comparison for the VR experience. Speaking about the differences between constructing a film and creating a VR experience, Mike Woods of Framestore says on Little Black Book’s website, “[VR is] a whole new way of doing things. You can’t just put someone in that environment and tell them a story in the same way you would with film. There’s no frame; you could be looking in a completely different direction when someone’s trying to tell you something important.”

In filmmaking, there are all sorts of cuts, edits, and multiple angles that go into making a relatively linear narrative perspective. VR, on the other hand, is meant to replicate the way a human can look randomly in one direction or another, with no bearing on a particular narrative or storyline. So, VR is not really like being in a movie, but it might be an interesting complement to traditional films, offering the same kind of wide-open, exploratory, immersive feel that open world maps offered to video games.

4. It Will Go the Way of 3D TV

Perhaps one of the most popular criticisms of VR is that it’s just a fad, a passing trend that’s hot right now but that will quickly lose steam. People may point to the clumsiness of headsets, the necessity of being tethered to a computer or gaming system for the optimum experience, or the sheer isolation caused by the technology for reasons that VR won’t sustain its initial hype. They might point to the recent example of 3D TV, a technology that saw an initial surge of popularity quickly fizzle out into eventual banishment on the island of misfit technologies.

While the expectations and waves of popularity between VR and a technology like 3D TV are somewhat similar, there are plenty of reasons to believe that VR will not go the way of previous failed technologies. For one, 3D TV is representative of a kind of technology that can be viewed as little more than an accessory: it’s an interesting addition to an already existing technological system, but it doesn’t disrupt our typical viewing enough to radically alter the landscape of that technology.

Because of this, in just a few short years, 3D TV went from being a hugely hyped commercial enterprise to being on only 2% of televisions in America, a number so low that Nielsen can’t even capture any significant viewing data for it. VR, on the other hand, is an entirely new technology, something more than just a mere addition to our existing systems (remember how hard it is to compare it to any other existing technology?).

If that wasn’t enough, the stakes are already very high for companies investing in VR. While a few telecommunications companies invested in 3D TV—ESPN even had a 3D sports channel before abandoning it and likely taking a pretty heavy loss in 2013—it’s nothing like the investment we’re seeing in VR technology. Some reports show that investors have dumped over $4 billion into VR startups since 2010, with $602 million coming in 2015 alone. With projections suggesting that the VR industry, coupled with its close cousin augmented reality (AR), will be worth upwards of $150 billion by 2020, it’s clear that major tech companies, startups, and investors alike have far too much invested in this technology to see it fade away.

5. We’ll Become Addicted to VR and Will Cut Ourselves Off from the Real World

This is a common fear regarding any major development in the tech world, but it’s been voiced perhaps more vociferously than ever in the context of VR. Many worry that, because VR devices today involve headsets and game controllers and being tethered to a gaming console or computer, we’ll become chained to the devices and will isolate ourselves from the real world, choosing virtual reality over plain old reality. At this point, doomsday skeptics might fear that our bodies will become batteries to fuel a The Matrix-like VR world where we’ve become prisoners, and it’ll only be a short matter of time before our technological overlords come to rule us all.

Not so fast. While it’s certainly true that the graphics in VR devices are pretty mind-blowing, to the extent that you most likely need to upgrade your graphics card in order to even experience them, there’s a bit of a catch when it comes to the notion of VR replacing our own realities. That catch, interestingly enough, is human-based: a psychological phenomenon known as the “uncanny valley” dictates that as a technology becomes increasingly humanoid, humans actually come to distrust that technology, so people will almost always check themselves before they get totally convinced that they’re having real interactions with digital characters and are walking in a world that feels as real as their own.

Even if VR technology does move past that valley threshold and becomes so real that it feels truly human and “trustworthy” again, there’s the matter of VR-induced motion sickness. It’s been documented that even the low-latency headsets from Oculus, Sony, and HTC can cause nausea for users after extended use, both because the frame rates of VR graphics are dizzyingly high and because there’s a disconnect between what your eyes see in VR and how much your body moves that gets amplified over time. So, while VR is a great technology to use for certain periods of time, it most likely won’t be replacing our own realities anytime soon.

With that reassurance, you’re ready to dive right into the world of virtual reality. The technology is certainly showing no signs of slowing down, so why not get involved now? In many years, when VR is a commonplace technology, you could be one of the select people who get to say, “I was using virtual reality back in 2016.”