In the 1980’s and the early 1990’s, there was a great deal of excitement about virtual reality. Virtual reality was going to be the next big thing! But, there was too much hype and not enough product. And virtual reality dropped off the radar screen, and to this day, is still nowhere to be seen. So, whatever happened to virtual reality? And where are we today?

Many of the VR technologies we were promised in the 1990’s have finally evolved: head-mount displays, motion tracking systems, and force feedback devices. But, it is important to remember that we are not talking about “The Matrix.” Walking around in a virtual environment is like walking around in a video game, and this is both exhilarating and a little disappointing.

If you have ever been to Second Life or Alpha World (or any number of online virtual worlds), you already know what to expect – a virtual world populated by building and trees. And it looks pretty much like any other virtual world you have ever seen, and this is a little disappointing. For some reason, most of us expect something more.

On the other hand, it is a surprisingly exhilarating experience. It is the difference between “playing” a video game and being part of the video game, the difference between looking at photographs and watching a movie. In contrast with your everyday video game or simulation, walking around in virtual reality changes the very way that you perceive and interact with the environment. “You walk around like you are really there.” It is pervasive. All encompassing.

I caught up with Peter Schlueer, President of WorldViz, at the International Symposium on Mixed and Augmented Reality, to see his latest VR demo . . . just put on the headset (consisting of VR goggles, hooked up to a motion tracking system and computer), and you are ready to go.

You suddenly find yourself in the kitchen of a trendy apartment building, looking out towards a living room. It is well decorated. There is art work on the walls. And it is all in spectacular resolution.

You walk around a little gingerly at first, partly because you are not used to being in a virtual environment, and partly because part of your brain knows that you are really walking around in a building somewhere (even though you cannot see it), and you don’t want to bump into anyone or anything.

But, after a few minutes, it becomes second nature. Walk down the hall. Avoid furniture. Don’t bump into walls. It is interesting that, although you know that there isn’t a really a wall there, it is difficult to make yourself walk into one.

My favorite room of the apartment was the living room. You look out the window and see that you are in a skyscraper, way, way, up. Inch closer to the window, it is a long way down!

The highlight of the demo was “walking the plank.” You are standing on the edge a giant pit (the window of the skyscraper would have been better). Suddenly a wooden plank (like on a pirate ship) slides out in front of you. You gingerly step out on the plank, balancing carefully. It is like walking on a balance beam, because you don’t want to fall off. It is a long way down, or at least, it looks like it. And then, it is time to jump off. And although you know you are in virtual reality, it really hard to do it. Everything in your body is screaming, “No!” Test the ground in front of you to make sure that it is really there. Grit your teeth. And jump! . . . what a rush.

So, let us return to our question. "Whatever happened to virtual reality?" The good news is that virtual reality is here. The bad news is that something is still missing. People. When I talk to someone, I want to see their face in immersive-real-time. In addition, virtual reality currently is prohibitively expensive, at $35,000-$40,000.

Rendering real-time faces presents a number of technological challenges, from tracking the motion of your lips, to reconstructing it in virtual space. Here it may be noted that tracking – the ability of a computer to recognize and understand a spatial environment – is something that computers have a surprisingly hard time with. This is all complicated by the fact that your VR goggles hide a large portion of your face. Thus, we can build expansive, beautiful, virtual environments, but we cannot put your face in it.

As a result, VR is great if you are an architect, but it is not ideal for social settings or business meetings. So, it looks like we are going to have to wait a while for the killer VR app. I hope it won’t be too long.