The hype train is back! And it brought a new tech in town.
It’s called Virtual Reality (VR) and its name is all but enough to make us, the common mortals, drool over it, and companies to start taking notes about its money-making potential.
Almost every big company – including Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Samsung, Sony, HTC and Steam – is touting this as the next big thing for both smartphones and PCs. And even though there are few things around the block that may be as interesting – Li-Fi, Supercomputers, modular smartphones, 100TB HDDs, and even cities made of bones (wait, what?!) – you don’t need to be a tech expert to agree with them.
In fact, we’re pretty sure that if you don’t, you probably don’t know enough about VR. So, it might be a good idea, before we dive any further, to first get a sense of what VR is, and why it may be the ”˜Hail Mary’ for an increasingly stagnant mobile and PC hardware industry.
Virtual Reality is a computer generated four-dimensional (4D) environment perceivable through the help of a specially designed VR headset which feeds images to the user’s eyes via special lenses. What makes the technology so fascinating is the interactive aspect of this newly created 4D environment: the technology is sensitive to both eye and body movements, meaning, it generates images and sounds based on the real-time actions of its user.
“When anything new comes along, everyone, like a child discovering the world, thinks that they’ve invented it, but you scratch a little and you find a caveman scratching on a wall is creating virtual reality in a sense. What is new here is that more sophisticated instruments give you the power to do it more easily. Virtual reality is dreams.” – Morton Heilig, quoted in Francis Hamit, Virtual Reality and the Exploration of Cyberspace, p. 57
To put it in a non-nerdy way, this technology will enable you to escape your reality as never before, opening the door to new, unexplored and exciting worlds. You can ride dragons, kill zombies, go trekking on Mars or fight aliens in your living room – and not by sitting in front of a screen, but by actually experiencing these things (or so you will believe) with your own eyes and arms and legs.
True, there is still some work left to be done, but thanks to the improvements made by giants such as Facebook and Samsung, the technology has matured quite a bit in recent years. In fact, the prototype models of the VR headsets for developers and early adopters are already available, with the first consumer device expected to hit the market sometime in 2017.
The VR experience is already available – on mobile, PC and consoles.
Google and Samsung have already produced headsets which work neatly with smartphones. Facebook’s and HTC’s headsets, on the other hand, require powerful PC hardware. At the moment, Sony is the only company offering a console VR experience, its headsets designed to be used exclusively with PS4.
Of course, there’s a catch (otherwise, instead of reading this article, you would have probably roamed the Sahara Desert searching for mummies in your living room).
All of these headsets work only if your device is powerful enough to support them. And how would you know if it is?
For now, you can just read ahead and find out in the next section. In the future, however, to make things clearer, phones, consoles and PCs will start coming with a ”˜VR-Ready’ sticker as a guarantee that they can provide a smooth VR experience. In plain terms, anything without a sticker and below the minimum requirements will simply not work.
Why? Because VR technology is ”˜immersive’. In order to work, it should temporarily deprave you of your two main senses: sight and sound; so, while using VR headsets, you will not be able to either see or hear anything. Anything.
And since the headset must respond in perfect sync with your body, powerful hardware is the only way you can be absolutely sure that VR will not harm your eyes or your body.
With VR, the screen will be positioned just an inch away from your eyes and the computer-generated environment will have to respond extremely quickly for you to avoid VR sickness. It is said that games and media will have to be optimized at a bare minimum frame-rate of 60fps, but 90fps is recommended whenever possible. Needless to add that, due to the proximity, high resolution and pixel dense displays are a prerequisite.
In purely practical terms: to render graphics and media at that frame-rate and with such quality, you will need seriously spec’d devices.
So, let’s talk about the minimum requirements.
There are no concrete specifications for a VR ready smartphone.
But Google is developing a VR headset with its own virtual environment called ”˜Daydream’, and HBO, NBA, Ubisoft and Netflix are behind the project.
Daydream-ready phones will need to feature highly responsive displays, appropriate sensors, the latest chipsets and loads of RAM. And it seems that none of today’s high-end smartphones will be compatible, as confirmed by Google. So, if you want a VR experience on a phone, consider waiting and upgrade only when Daydream-ready phones are available.
Samsung, HTC, Huawei and Xiaomi are already working on them.
Because of VR, both Microsoft and Sony, the big guns in the industry, have announced releasing new and updated models of their current-gen consoles, years before the expected upgrades. Better graphics and VR compatibility, however, may be the only modifications in both cases. It’s that important to them not to miss out on the bandwagon.
“Virtual reality was once the dream of science fiction. But the internet was also once a dream, and so were computers and smartphones. The future is coming.” – Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook
As we can see, the spec race is back on. During the past couple of years, having the latest mobile phone or PC didn’t feel as important as it does now. We grew accustomed to 400-500$ computers or smartphones being a decent choice for at least a year or two. There were no noticeable improvements or exclusive features other than better graphics to make us want to break the bank.
But VR is here to change that. It’s here to give you the proper motivation to upgrade to the latest and greatest again. With a plethora of great entertainment options on the way, there’s no reason you shouldn’t start saving up for VR as we speak. With huge games such as “Batman”, “Star Trek” and “Resident Evil” on their way to amaze and thrill us, iMAX planning to open six virtual reality film theatres, Google promising VR entertainment on the go, and companies like HBO, Ubisoft and NBA backing up the claim – it’s certainly hard to imagine how should one resist the temptation to experience the world of virtual reality.
It’s not only the hype train: VR is actually coming this time. So, get on as soon as you can.
And, oh, don’t forget to fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.
 Things have changed in the meantime and as of 2017, you don’t have to wait for Daydream-compatible smartphones: you can already have a look at them at vr.google and read few reviews about them here. (August 2017)
 The final name of the console, revealed at E32017, is Xbox One X. The special edition is expected to be available worldwide by the end of this year; in the pre-order phase, it sold out in less than a day. (August 2017)