VR Was the 'Next Big Thing' 20 Years Ago. What's Different Now?
The foundation for broad adoption is more substantial, but content could be problematic.
Image: Swill Klitch/Shutterstock
Perhaps it's just because enthusiasm is a prerequisite for technological progress, but sometimes the tech world can get ahead of itself, hyping up a new technology a bit too soon. The current hype around virtual reality, for instance, sounds awfully similar to hype we heard twenty years ago, which turned out to be either a head fake or a failure, depending on how harsh you want to be.
Tony Parisi, who describes himself as a VR OG, helped create VRML—a universal language for authoring 3D applications over the web that was superseded by X3D—during the 90s VR wave. He currently works as the head of VR and AR at Unity, a popular 2D and 3D game engine. "To say it was a little early would be an understatement," he said. "People barely had the Internet, barely knew what a webpage was."
This go-round, though, things are different, he added. Computing infrastructure is radically improved; consumers are used to interactive media and increasingly expect it; and there is a class of creators who know how to work in 3D. "Folks have grown up watching CG movies and playing video games. If you put a magazine in front of the youngest generation, they're gonna tap it and expect it to do something back," Parisi explained. "And there are millions of 3D developers out there. That was not true twenty years ago."
To say it was a little early would be an understatement. People barely had the Internet, barely knew what a webpage was.
But Parisi was quick to note that these factors represent a baseline for broader adoption—not a guarantee of it. And while there are more creators who know how to work in 3D, content still has some ways to go. That's why Taylor Freeman, the co-founder and CEO of Upload—a VR publication and co-working space founded in 2014—is turning his company's attention towards education.
"We see ourselves as an organizer of all the crazy fragmentation [in the industry] and we want to solve issues we see facing consumer growth. One of the biggest issues is great content—replayable, value-add content that is not achievable in other mediums," Freeman explained. This includes higher-quality gaming and entertainment content, he said, but also industry applications. Imagine doing a virtual walk-through of a building before construction begins or practicing a surgery before operating on a patient, for instance.
"Instead of us trying to hire a bunch of developers and create [the content] ourselves," he added, "we are providing the picks and shovels to the gold-miners." Upload currently has one co-working space in San Francisco, where it's offered a few workshops in tandem with events hosted there. A second office is slated to open in Los Angeles on Thursday, April 13, though, and when that happens, Upload's learning options—dubbed UploadEDU—will ramp up as well. Think General Assembly, which offers skill-based courses for at working professionals, but for virtual and augmented reality. In fact, Upload snagged General Assembly alum Mercedes Bent to lead its education charge.
"The bulk of our subject matter will be offered as skills acquisition training," Bent explained. Those skills include VR and AR development, 360-degree filmmaking, VR design, web VR development, technical artistry, storytelling and interactive experiences. Courses will range from introductory to immersive, and take place both online and in-person.
Introductory courses may include an introduction to Unity or animation; Freeman said they're designed to people totally new to VR a toe dip to see if it's for them. Other courses will target more experience developers. The hope is that such classes will further fuel the number of folks who can create in 3D, driving content and thus adoption forward. "Since all the consumer hardware was released last year," Freeman said, "it's up to the content creators to give you a reason to put that thing on your head."
"Outside of a university setting, there are no opportunities to learn VR development," Bent added. Conservatively, Upload is projected to enroll over 2,500 students in San Francisco, Los Angeles and online classes over the next nine months—but Bent wouldn't be surprised if that number doubled. "Similar to app development for touch screens once the iPhone launched in 2007, we're going to see a wave of people actively seeking skills training in VR and AR."