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If there’s anything that might signal the future has finally “arrived,” being able to cliff dive of a 65ft ledge in Hawaii while sitting on a couch in Phoenix has got to be it.

As the nuts and bolts of head-mounted displays become less expensive and more powerful by the day, the idea of transporting yourself thousands of miles away in an instant is no longer just a pipe dream forgotten from too many cheesy 90’s movies ago.

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Google Glass, Oculus Rift, and Samsung’s Gear VR are just a few of the dozens of HMDs that are piquing the interest of professionals and gaming enthusiasts in 2015, and as the display technology behind them continues to surge ahead as one of the fastest growing markets in consumer electronics, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the modern iteration of these devices are going to be more than just another passing fad.

Here, we break down the basics of where head mounted displays got their start, what’s available on shelves today, and even make some predictions about where the industry might be headed tomorrow.

Immersive experiences: a short history

The desire to immerse ourselves in a fully realized virtual world is nothing new, harkening all the way back to blockbusters like Tron in the 1980’s, and the Keanu Reeves cult-classic Johnny Mnemonic a decade later. The 90’s also played host to the disastrous release of Nintendo’s Virtual Boy, and a litany of arcade virtual “reality” machines with graphics about as realistic as two polygons glued together with gum.

Back then it was clear that our interest in creating fully immersive experiences would have to sit dormant until the technology caught up to the ambition we had spent years building up, and it wouldn’t be until 2011 that the public started to see a glimmer of what would eventually become the VR revolution we know today.

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Long before Oculus was barely a footnote on Facebook’s balance sheet, Japanese electronics maker Sony started to push their own HMDs which could be hooked up to smartphones or home computers to simulate a full theater-like experience inside a personal visor. Unfortunately, these devices were limited to just a few select features, such as mirroring your cellphone screen, watching movies, or flipping the screen up to use as ordinary headphones on their own.

Pricey for what they did, the trend never really took off outside of Japan. But despite that, these short-lived HMDs would prove to be a spiritual successor to VR of the future, and a key stepping stone on the road toward the virtual reality headsets we’re seeing crawl out of the woodwork today.

Head Mounted Displays

If we had it pinpoint it, it all started when John Carmack (of Doom fame) couldn’t stop talking about this thing he’d been working on at E3 in 2014. A prototype of a new virtual reality system, which at the time of its “debut” was still being held together with duct tape and spare parts torn off a pair of ski lenses.

As rudimentary as the headset was, what it had inside blew everyone’s expectations clear out of the water. Journalists and attendees started trickling out rumors that the guy from iD Software had something to show us, and it was going to change everything we understood about gaming in the 21st century. Even in its alpha stages, something about the original Oculus had a way of captivating audiences unlike any other device that came before it.

From here it was off to the races for the industry, and not more than a ten months later Carmack’s company is on its fourth development kit, barely able to keep in front of the numerous competitors who are primed to flood the consumer market with viable alternatives. Shortly following the E3 reveal, Samsung came up to bat with its own Gear headset, built for the budget gamers who can’t expect both a smartphone and a VR kit under their Christmas tree in the same year.

Germany Gadget Show Samsung

Not long after, 2015’s GDC saw the introduction of Valve’s coordinated effort with HTC to create the Vive, an HMD which reportedly does everything the Oculus can, but better. The peripheral market could be just as huge too, with companies like Omni which are hoping to bridge the gap where the visual meets the physical, offering stationary omni-directional treadmills that let you run, crouch, and strafe in place.

There are even whispers milling about a collection of researchers who might have unlocked the secrets to “smell-o-vision”, taking the form of a modified fan tower that can support over 50,000 different scents custom coded into a game at once. At this rate, the devoted gamer of 2020 could have an entire room dedicated solely to their VR experience, rigged with treadmills, climate controls, and full-body haptic feedback suits to achieve total sensory overload.

But fret not if that whole operation doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, because another rapidly expanding sector of the market, called augmented reality, might be just the seamless blend between the best of both worlds you’ve been looking for.

Augmented Reality

As if snowboarding couldn’t get any better than it already is.

If you want to see a clear picture of what augmented reality looks like today, the RideOn snowboarding goggles are a perfect example of how much fun the future can be. The effect of AR is made possible by a pair of optics mounted on each side of the goggles, which project a HUD overlay of digital content on top of real world images in the user’s field-of-view. The technique is similar to what we’ve seen in the windshield of the new Mercedes S-Class, where content such as GPS navigational data, movement tracking, and text messages from friends can be read without distracting users from what’s happening on the road in front of them.

Other AR devices you might recognize include a little side project that Google was futzing around with called Glass, as well as its newest investment endeavor, the mysterious Magic Leap.

 

While the former has since crashed and burned, Google is already looking forward to technologies that carry the potential to forever shift the way we interact with the world at large.   The company learned a valuable lesson with its first attempt at bringing AR into the mainstream, and now it’s ready stack its chips on whatever steampunk-eque game Magic Leap is playing.

Microsoft is also piling into the fray with its own glasses-based entry, revealed at the company’s Windows 10 event in January. Dubbed the HoloLens, the live demo we saw makes us believe that Microsoft plans to stick to its strengths this time around, targeting professionals in design and the sciences first and leaving the consumer space open as a question mark until they know what the device is really capable of.

No matter who comes out on top in AR, the devices that make it possible represent the culmination of years of sci-fi dreams and futuristic fantasies brought to life, and have within them the ability to blur the lines between where the analog of our lives ends, and the digital begins.

Wrap Up

HMDs have come a long way from their humble beginnings of watching anime on the train, and they still have so much further to go.

If what we’ve seen in just the first few months of 2015 is any indication of the trajectory the VR industry will maintain on the road forward, it’s looking more like by the end of this decade, we’ll be spending more time inside our personal headsets than out.

The pipe dream of virtual and augmented reality is so much more than what it was just five years ago, and the technology that makes it possible is getting better every day. No longer is a matter of if the revolution is coming, but merely of a question of when.

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