First of all, let me introduce myself. My name is Egle Rääsk, and I have studied history and most recently entrepreneurship and technology management at the University of Tartu. My master’s thesis focused on the Virtual Reality (VR) user experience of the historical tourist attraction. From the topic of my thesis grew our family company, BLUERAY, which is also a spin-off company of the University of Tartu and a member of Estonian Virtual and Augmented Reality Association. We visualize history and offer virtual time travels.
When was VR invented?
The answer probably depends on how old you are. Conversations with our visitors have shown that the younger generation associates the birth of VR with the beginning of the 2000s, largely due to the Oculus Rift Kickstarter campaign in 2012. No wonder, because two years later, Facebook bought the company for two billion US dollars and has been a locomotive of the field.
But those of you who love history or have been in the world for a little longer, know that the rapid development also took place in the last century. Since our company is engaged in visualizing history, I like to point out that bolder dreamers emphasize that cave paintings are also 3D. To be more serious and to make it short, I jump a couple of thousand years, leaving behind the invention of the stereoscope in the middle of the 19th century and the first patent on a head-mounted device in 1916, into 1968 where we find the first head-mounted device connected to a computer. Note that the name of the mechanical tracking system was The Sword of Damocles (a name known to Assassin’s Creed gameplayers and lovers of myths). The man behind it was Ivan E. Sutherland – the father of computer graphics. He is the guy whose words I’ll use to ask a question at the end.
In the early 1980s, the next enthusiast, Jaron Lanier, began to introduce the term virtual reality, and in 1984 he and his friends founded the first VR start-up, VPL Research, Inc. In the 1990s VR gained the attention of the mainstream media, all the doors were unlocked, and the conquest of the world was at hand. As we know, this didn’t happen. Instead, what happened was the so-called “VR winter” – frustration, decline, and research in closed laboratories. If you guessed that a new dawn had started with Oculus, then you are right.
You may ask why I’m writing so much about the past of VR, instead of focusing on innovation in VR and the future? A well-known theory says that history moves in spirals, not the straight line we have come to expect.
So, very exciting experiments and research were carried out in those military and large corporation laboratories, which are worth knowing for today’s developers in the field of VR. To name some: the treatment of phobias and anxiety, from training in military combat to today’s more general teamwork development, “hands-on” surgical procedures and various research on social behaviour (person placed in a body of another skin colour, an adult in the body of a child, well-known third hand and rubber hand illusions or the “human octopus” phenomenon). A couple of decades of experience is a great way to gain knowledge on how to design the end-user-centric solutions of today and tomorrow to deliver the most important promises in virtual reality: immersion, presence, and experience. One thing that all these experiments have shown is that it is possible to deceive the brain or let the brain fill the gaps in VR.
Travelling and VR
From the tourism sector’s fear during the 1990s that VR may replace ordinary travel, we have come to an understanding how VR can support and complement tourism. Today, tourists can experience VR applications designed for marketing purposes, edutainment, accessibility, and heritage preservation, and we almost have an understanding that there cannot be attractive tourist attractions without VR. The demand for VR solutions was further increased by the spread of the coronavirus. But have we gone too far?
Sometimes it seems that we have forgotten the deeper meaning of why we use this medium. I would stress the ability of virtual reality to break the boundaries of reality and experience phenomena that are not possible in physical reality. Regardless of the field or industry, the main nature of VR is related to providing understanding – whether it is telling an entertaining story, understanding the working principles of machines and equipment, practicing, and consolidating skills or acquisitioning of new knowledge.
With the assumption that in VR “one size fits all”, we neglect to notice the rules of thumb of user experience, technology acceptance models, innovation adoption curve, etc. So, we see VR in tourism exclusively as a way to positively mediate the tourist experience, but we may face instead cybersickness, temporary sense of isolation and the addictive nature of virtual reality. As a University of Tartu spin-off company, BLUERAY values learning, and along with the University of Tartu we devote ourselves to develop user-friendly VR solutions in the cultural heritage and tourism sector. I’m proud to say that our oldest time traveller has been 92 years old.
Please mind the gap
The aforementioned Oculus Rift is considered to be the first VR-glasses for the masses to offer a truly immersive virtual reality experience, and it has helped to pave the way for other devices and other areas. If a ninety-two-year-old has already travelled in VR, can we say that virtual reality has conquered the world and won the hearts of the masses?
The International Data Corporation (IDC) worldwide virtual reality headsets forecast says that in 2025 there will be more than 25 million VR-glasses sold and the market will be over 10 billion euros by 2024 (The estimated market size in 2021 is just over €4 billion). There is a gap if you are looking for content other than games for consumption on a personal VR headset, and this is something to work with for indies, SMEs, and large corporations like Meta (Facebook), who owns almost half of the market share. One thing is sure, as big names invest heavily in virtual reality and augmented reality and we see newcomers – recently TikTok’s owner ByteDance acquired Chinese VR hardware manufacturer Pico Interactive – we can expect updates in the VR sector. Good news has also come from nearby: Varjo from Finland just released Varjo Aero and introduced Teleport VR.
Will the changes be ground-breaking and will Sutherland’s vision of “The Ultimate Display” come true, or is another winter coming?
/…/The ultimate display would, of course, be a room within which the computer can control the existence of matter. A chair displayed in such a room would be good enough to sit in. Handcuffs displayed in such a room would be confining, and a bullet displayed in such a room would be fatal. With appropriate programming, such a display could literally be the Wonderland into which Alice walked. /…/ (Ivan E. Sutherland, the “father of computer graphics” & visionary in 1965)