In 1995 I tried to raise venture capital for the world’s first Internet advertising company, and couldn’t find a single investor. No one had ever heard of the World Wide Web, and nobody believed it would take off.
Fast forward four years and venture investors were falling all over each other trying to fund anything with a “.com” in the name with as much money as they could force these companies to take. An explosion of wealth that lead to the creation of a massive number of high-tech, good paying jobs and one of the most prosperous set of economic conditions in history.
The way the Internet and the “flat” World Wide Web set off this period of economic nirvana was, in short, that it changed everything — everything, that is, for some segments of the economy. All kinds of costs were taken out of entire industries, such as music, travel and shopping. Information also allowed Internet users to obtain better prices, further encouraging shopping.
But some industries were largely untouched by the World Wide Web. Industries like real estate, conventions and classroom education. Other industries were impacted, like clothes shopping, were impacted, but relatively lightly.
Virtual Reality holds the promise to be even more transformative than the flat Web was — reaching into every segment of every market and remaking it to be virtually accessible.
Imagine being able to have a virtual replica of your real home online, including all of your furniture and belongings. Because you are wearing a VR headset, like the Oculus Rift for example, you can see the entire home in life-size reality all around you; and you can navigate the rooms with a joystick that controls your avatar.
If you want to see how a remodel of the real home would look, you can do it virtually in minutes. Repaint the walls or see how new carpets would look? Point and click… and buy, if you like the paint or the work of the decorator, or the carpet from CarpetWorld.
You will soon be able to slip on a Rift and be instantly transported to a mall with a couple of girlfriends to do some clothes shopping. Everything you see is your size, and you can try outfits on an avatar that has your identical proportions. You can match items with an online inventory containing a copy of every item of clothing in your real-world closet. See how the skirt goes with the shoes you picked up last week with a click.
If you are a student, you and your Rift will attend classes that take place in real-time, with other real students and taught by the best and brightest teachers for the subject matter. You’ll get the very best educators blending the best of real-world schools with the best of online learning and technology. Your questions can be posted in live chat as you watch lectures, interactive power-point presentations and video feeds. Pop-quizzes that appear on your screen and group projects with other students, some of whom you can make friends with and form study groups — are all features of VR education that are already appearing in platforms like the Virtual World Web.
Each of these industries and many more, will experience a transformation that allows for massive economy-of-scale savings that will make everything less expensive. At the same time, it will create demand for a whole new market segment of virtual goods and service providers and the cottage industries surrounding those areas; not to mention high-tech demand for designers, developers, graphic artists.
The explosive growth in the user-base of VR will quickly create a large consumer demand for haptics devices. Haptics devices are clothing or objects that transmit touch. These things can be anything from a glove that allows a user to grab and manipulate virtual objects to a suit and treadmill that allows a user to navigate a virtual environment and be effected by objects and other people, and effect other objects and people in a lifelike way.
In a virtuous-cycle, the introduction of good consumer haptics will drive more people to join the Virtual World Web, which will in turn produce more demand for businesses to create a virtual presence and content, which will drive the haptics and VR headsets to become better and more comfortable and more convenient, which will drive even more users, and repeat.
Eventually, market forces will sculpt a VR experience that is very convenient, user-friendly, and downright spectacular.
Now, it is true that the promise of a virtual reality transformation has been made many times before, dating back to the 1980’s and multiple times throughout the 1990’s with video arcade games by Virtuality offering consumers their first VR headsets and credible publications (Computer Gaming World) predicting “Affordable VR by 1994.”
Of course, the public was let down by these false-starts, and the attitude surrounding consumer VR became that of a future technology that would always be “just a few years away.”
All of that has changed in the past year. The Oculus Rift first jolted the VR industry back to life with a Kickstarter campaign that raised almost 10 times more than it was seeking, closing with $2.4 million in August 2012. When developer kits began shipping, content for the Rift began to appear, and OculusVR could not keep up with the demand. In March 2014, OculusVR ran out of developer kits, having sold a total of 60,000 kits at $300 each.
Sixty thousand kits may not seem like a lot, but it was enough to get the attention of Facebook, which successfully purchased the company for $2 billion in March 2014 — and pledged to deliver one-billion Oculus Rifts to consumers. One billion is a lot, and coming from Facebook, it breathes a whole new life into all thing VR. This time, the technology is proven, and is backed by huge money and marketplace giants.
With all of the benefits that successful VR will deliver, and with a momentum and backing that was last seen at the dawn of the consumer Internet, a new force is about to be unleashed that will mean radical changes and a new wave of prosperity that will reach around the globe.
Within the next few years, sweeping changes along the lines of how music was transformed by the internet (from buying CDs and listening to a Walkman into downloading singles and streaming music to any device) is going to hit just about every industry and activity.
Pollution and emissions will be cut as students attend virtual classes from home, where they still get to sit next to other students, engage in group activities and get personal attention from teaching assistants — but their primary professors will be the world’s top teachers, providing classroom services to thousands, even millions of students, at the same lecture in real time. Company employees, bank tellers and government office workers will be working from home, but will appear to be in their office or bank along with their customers. Not much will be different, except everything will be done virtually. Well, one thing will be different — there will be no more waiting in lines.
Prices for almost everything will plummet. You may still need a large wardrobe, but because you will need it for your avatar, you’ll be buying virtual clothes at a cost that is 99% off the regular retail price. A closet full of the latest styles will be attainable for a shopaholic for a nominal price.
Entertainment will be radically transformed too. Imagine attending the Super Bowl with a 50-yard-line box seat for you and your close friends for $20; a concert featuring world famous bands for a few pennies; an amusement park with the sickest rides ever imagined for only $0.25; and all with no travel costs, hotel fees and without even leaving the house.
Safety will be another big winner. What if it’s a bad flu season, or the unthinkable happens and an epidemic begins to spread? Having a lifelike alternative reality in which you can take care of all of your work, school, errands and entertainment in the safety of your home will be an unimaginable blessing.
Yes, VR is arriving, and VR will not remain in the virtual realm for very long. Very soon, the difference between what is real and what is virtual will be a question whose answer will solely depend on your philosophical outlook; but in the real world, virtual reality will become more real than reality ever was.