In Depth

CES 2016: Is 2016 the year of Virtual Reality?

Hands-on demonstrations with several soon-to-be released devices at the Consumer Electronics Show begs the question.

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"Is 2016 the year that virtual reality (VR) finally makes its breakthrough as a mainstream technology?" writes Stuart Dredge in The Guardian. It's a question on the tip of the tech media tongue. Several different VR headsets have been on display at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this week, many set for releases this year.

The hype surrounding the devices is big. The BBC reported that queues for hands-on VR demonstrations – particularly with the Oculus Rift headset – have been huge.

The Oculus in particular is getting attention because of its long public development, the involvement of Facebook and a price reveal at the show of $599 (£499 in the UK, excluding shipping), with first deliveries in March.

Excitement surrounding news of a price and timeframe for the finished product has dampened for some, though. "Costing more than any video game console of this generation, and requiring an expensive bleeding-edge gaming PC, the Oculus Rift is a towering barrier to the supposed mainstream VR culture some of us felt promised," says The Verge.

Oculus has since issued an apology to the customers who feel the price is higher than previously hinted at, reports the Independent.

BBC journalist Zoe Kleinman enjoyed a hands-on demonstration of the device, playing a space game called Adr1ft. "Suddenly, I was floating inside a glass windowed dome above Earth not dissimilar to the cupola on board the International Space Station," she said.

However, the intensity of the VR environments led her to ask to stop the demonstration.

The Oculus is just one of now many different VR headsets likely to be on sale soon though. HTC's Vive, also penned for a 2016 release, is at the show and those trying the device have been experiencing a virtual trek through the Himalayas.

Sony will be introducing its own device for use with the PlayStation 4. Although the product is largely absent at CES this year, it is likely to launch in 2016, too, and in an interview with the BBC, chief executive Kaz Hirai said there are more than 100 titles currently in production for use with the headset. Samsung also has a VR headset in the making.

So while 2016 may be a year where high quality VR headsets become products people can buy, will the flagship pieces make an impact?

Beyond gaming applications, there's more virtual reality headsets can do.

When Facebook bought Oculus in March 2014, chairman Mark Zuckerberg imagined the possibilities of the technology. Most notably, his vision of a virtual courtside seat at sporting fixtures is bound to excite those more interested in sports than games. Business Insider notes that such a ticket for the NBA finals can sell for more than $30,000 (£20,500). With VR headsets, that seat can be sold an infinite amount of times.

There's also room for more functional, non-entertainment-based applications as well. The Telegraph writes how VR can be used to simulate battlefields in the likes of Iraq and Afghanistan and help soldiers with PTSD confront traumatic moments, as well as train new recruits. They can be used by architects to show and walk clients through digital versions of new buildings.

So will high quality headsets such as the Oculus Rift beat a pathway into this future?

The Verge says the virtual reality revolution won't be triggered overnight, "nor is such a revolution guaranteed to arrive ever". VR is not for everyone just yet, it adds, and at the moment, will be reserved for early adopters willing to part with large sums of money for the devices in their earliest state.

However, the cheaper and more rudimentary forms of virtual reality, such as Google Cardboard, could introduce the technology to the masses on the cheap, before the expensive and high-performance headsets begin to come down in price.

The Guardian finishes trying to answer its own question by looking at the moral implications of using a VR headset. Can our minds and bodies cope? Motion sickness could be a barrier to uptake, as could the potential for the immersion levels to leave footprints on the brain. "I worry what happens when a violent video game feels like murder. And when pornography feels like sex. How does that change the way humans interact, function as a society?" says Professor Jeremy Bailenson, of Stanford University's Virtual Human Interaction Lab.

Regardless of the social, moral or physical implications, VR will be a reality in 2016.

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