Is virtual reality making a comeback?

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In the Angry Nintendo Nerd’s video about the Virtual Boy — a short-lived video game console that claimed to offer a “virtual reality” experience — he says that back in the mid-1990s, it seemed like the coolest thing, but that now no one cares about virtual reality. This, he claims, is why even with better technology than before, no one is making virtual reality systems for the average consumer anymore. Certainly that seems true for pop culture: the Virtual Boy, the movies The Lawnmoer Man and The Matrix, Aerosmith’s video for “Amazing,” and a whole bunch of video games with “virtual” in the title came out then, vs. nothing like that now.

But when I went to check the NYT, I found a little surprise. Sure enough, there was a flaring up and dying down of the phrase that jibes with what we’d expect — but there’s been a modest yet steady increase in the phrase’s usage since 2003. I skimmed the titles of the articles and didn’t notice any clear pattern; maybe they’re simply using it more in military training, and the news items are about that. Whatever it is, there’s something to be explained. Not knowing anything about virtual reality, I’ll leave it up to others to hazard a better guess. The graph of its appearance in the NYT is below the fold.

Here’s the first epidemic craze, followed by a recent increase:




  1. I have a somewhat-crazed hypothesis that the more a future development is anticipated and hyped, the less likely it becomes. (Contrawise, what actually happens will almost certainly not have been widely anticipated.) 
    The constant concern over nuclear war destroying human civilization may have had something to do with out exiting the Cold War without being turned into radioactive ash. If people hadn’t been so obsessed with the possibility, it might have been more likely. 
    I think “virtual reality” is less of a fictional craze right now because 1) the former ideas about what it would be like are outmoded, and 2) a more-plausible form of virtual world is taking form, and so people don’t pay attention to it. 
    We have nearly-ubiquitous computers, and countless tools that make the passage of data from reality to linked networks easy. Immersive sensory displays aren’t needed for cyberspace.

  2. I have ‘experienced’ VR running on desktop level computers (science experiment), at the DisneyQuest arcade in Orlando (Video Games). I also hear that many modern fps games come with options that allow 2 viewpoints (left eye, right eye). 
    All in all, VR feels a lot like flying cars. Really cool idea, but when you start to get into the nitty gritty of designing it, you realize that the cost/benefit analysis doesn’t pan out. The imersion difference between a big screen TV with surround sound and a VR helmet isn’t worth the isolation, monetary, and comfort costs.