Is virtual reality the next big computing platform?

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Back in the early '90s I was entranced by the idea of virtual reality (VR) and cyberpunk. I fell in love with the VR cyberspace of William Gibson's 1984 novel, Neuromancer. I read about Jaron Lanier's work on VR goggles and haptic gloves in the now defunct Mondo 2000 magazine and suffered through the dreadful sci-fi flick, Lawnmower Man. Years later, I plunged into the virtual world of Second Life.

And now, virtual reality is the bomb all over again. Last week Facebook bought Oculus Rift, a small, Kickstarter-funded startup that picked up the VR torch a couple of years ago when mainstream game companies had left it behind as a failed idea.

By all accounts, the Oculus Rift experience is profound. The still-awkward looking goggles serve up stereoscopic images that move in tandem with your head. They put you, users say, inside games, inside the metaverse.

But, Facebook isn't the only one that's jumped into VR. Sony has announced a prototype VR headset for Playstation 4. It's called Project Morpheus, and even in its early stages, looks much more comfortable and stylish then the Oculus Rift gear. And, True Player Gear has announced the Totem headset that allows you to see the real and virtual worlds at the same time. And Microsoft? Nothing yet, but Jaron Lanier is working in its research department, so they shouldn't be counted out.

So why is virtual reality so hot right now?

Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg says he sees VR as the next big thing. "Strategically we want to start building the next major computing platform that will come after mobile," he told a recent conference call. "History suggests there will be more platforms to come, and whoever builds and defines these," he said, "will shape the future and reap the benefits."

Zuckerberg's smart to be looking to platforms beyond mobile. His company missed mobile when it started to heat up. Though, with apps like Paper, it's playing catch-up pretty well. It can't afford to miss the next bus by. But is VR it?

Certainly the software, hardware and pure graphics processing power of devices and computers are at a stage where the experience can be rich and immersive. And, thanks to the R&D and economies of scale smartphones have afforded hardware manufacturers, the size and cost of VR parts are in the ballpark for making VR gear affordable.

Some observers think VR will be stuck in a gamer ghetto, where the first-person shooters and RPGs leave hardcore players hungry for more immersive and visceral experiences. But, clearly Facebook sees an audience far beyond games.

Right now Facebook is a global social platform tied to your real identity. If Zuckerberg isn't just blowing smoke up investor's butts, he imagines a future Facebook where friends and family can concurrently experience vacations, sports events, family milestones etc. in a virtual world either manufactured by VR headsets' graphic processors or via paired stereo video cameras that beam experiences to an audience.

I think it's pointless to offer critiques of those ideas along the lines of "nobody's going to wear goofy VR gear to connect with family members" or "only gamers care about virtual reality." Those arguments are of the same nature as "who needs a computer you can carry around with you" and "nobody will read a newspaper on a screen." The reality of technology is that you should never bet against it, because you'll lose in six months.

Already teens who use Snapchat, Facebook and text messages live in two worlds, the "here and now" and "there and now." So, don't count the metaverse out. The groundwork has already been laid. And, me? Ready to jack in.

Wayne MacPhail has been a print and online journalist for 25 years, and is a long-time writer for rabble.ca on technology and the Internet.

Photo: Sergey Galyonkin/flickr

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