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A VR pioneer talks about the near end of virtual reality in the late nineties and the resurrection of VR headsets – thanks to Apple.
Louis Rosenberg founded VR start-up Immersion Corporation in the early nineties. Years of research in VR labs at Stanford University, the U.S. space agency NASA, and the U.S. Air Force convinced Rosenberg that virtual reality and augmented reality were on the verge of a breakthrough. Then came the Internet.
Virtual reality: from the next big hit to VR winter
“I was sure VR would be widely adopted within a decade. I know this sounds wildly optimistic, but it didn’t feel that way at the time,” Rosenberg wrote in a blog post. He was not the only one with this view.
In the late eighties and early nineties, he says, a creative and vibrant industry emerged with VR trade shows, conferences, and magazines. Many in the industry thought it would only take another ten years at most for VR to hit the mainstream.
In the mid-1990s, VR enthusiasm peaked and the industry fell into what Rosenberg calls “the VR winter.” From 1997 to 2012, he says, venture capitalists didn’t take you seriously if you even mentioned the term virtual reality. Many of the early VR companies disappeared, even though they had pioneered many key virtual world technologies.
Internet killed the virtual reality star
When asked why, Rosenberg provides several answers at once. “The typical answer is that it was over-hyped, with hardware that was too expensive, and fidelity that wasn’t good enough. While true facts, they don’t explain why VR totally fell off the map.”
What nearly wiped out virtual reality in the nineties was the Internet, according to Rosenberg. “In the late ’80s and early ’90s, VR was ‘the next big thing’ in Silicon Valley. But in 1995, the Internet suddenly took off, grabbing the crown in a massive way,” Rosenberg recollects.
The term “virtual reality” quickly became old news and the target of jokes about failed markets, he says. Still, a handful of companies survived by focusing on related markets.
VR companies had to adapt to survive
Companies like Immersion sought opportunities to market their technologies away from virtual reality. “Our mission was to create affordable immersive interfaces, complete with precise manual tracking and realistic haptic feedback. But when the markets for general-pupose VR didn’t materialize, we had to adapt, focusing on opportunities that were viable at the time.”
Immersion had developed a mechanical arm as an input device for VR applications. This had proven extremely useful for digitizing 3D objects for virtual worlds because of its spatial accuracy. So it came to be used in the creation of 3D video games and 3D movies. Unlike VR, the use of 3D in games and movies exploded at that time.
“This pushed us to develop a product called the Microscribe 3D that enabled artists and animators to quickly turn physical objects into 3D models with high accuracy,” Rosenberg explains. Microscribe 3D has been used in the creation of many feature films such as Shrek, Ice Age, and Titanic.
Surgical training as second mainstay
Immersion was also one of the first companies to release haptic joysticks, computer mice, and steering wheels for video games. Rosenberg also put out feelers with his company in the medical field.
“We partnered with medical experts and developed VR interfaces for specific medical procedures, including laparoscopic surgery, endoscopic surgery, bronchoscopy, and even spinal epidurals – all with realistic haptic feedback.”
These systems were used in renowned medical schools around the world in the late nineties to train physicians in surgical procedures, he said. Today, VR in medicine is considered a billion-dollar market.
Apple’s iPhone saves virtual reality
The VR winter lasted well into the 2000s. Many hold that Palmer Luckey founded the second VR after he launched Oculus VR in 2012 and put virtual reality back on the map. According to Rosenberg, however, it was another product that laid the decisive foundation for the resurgence of VR headsets years earlier: Apple’s iPhone.
The launch of Apple’s first smartphone in 2007, he says, brought the cost of small, lightweight, high-quality screens down to a level that finally made VR viable for consumers. Today, Apple is working on its own VR headset.
“Smartphones also drove down the cost of motion sensors, processors, and other components needed for VR hardware. Google made this point brilliantly in 2014 when they launched Google Cardboard, a headset built entirely from a smartphone and a foldable piece of cardboard,” Rosenberg said.
The metaverse isn’t all clunky VR headsets and cartoon avatars
According to Rosenberg, the success of the Oculus VR headset led to virtual reality regaining credibility and becoming interesting to investors. Still, he says, a healthy skepticism remained among experts that the hype of the ’90s, with its unrealistic timetables and market forecasts, was repeating itself.
“And while that was probably true, there was one big difference during this second VR surge – it wasn’t just startups pushing the vision, it was major corporations,” Rosenberg explains. Today, it’s the term “metaverse” in particular that threatens to perish from its own hype and lose credibility.
Rosenberg is nevertheless confident that immersive media will outstrip “flat media” by 2030. Current attempts to establish metaverse platforms like Horizon Worlds, however, are not the future of the metaverse, he said. “I don’t believe most adults will spend countless hours wearing VR headsets to control cartoon avatars in cartoon worlds.”
While that will become a popular form of social entertainment, he said, other things will change society. “I’m convinced that augmented reality, enabled by lightweight eyewear, will create an AR metaverse that will transform our lives, replacing phones and desktops as our primary interface to digital content. Sure, I’ve got the timing wrong before, but this time the momentum is unstoppable – another winter is not coming.”
Learn more about the history of virtual reality.