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Michael Douglas enters the Virtual Reality system of his company to crack a conspiracy agaibnst him in the 1994 movie
 
 
VR the world! Virtual Reality is a technology whose time has come

Virtual  Reality has  moved beyond   buzzword  to offer  the rest of us,  an  addictive, immersive new  environment  for work and play. Welcome to  Maya Bazaar!
INDIATECHONLINE Special Focus
Bangalore, April 24 2016
There was a time  when people didn't mind  the stares of passers by , as they stuck huge brick-sized contraptions  -- early  mobile phones-- to their faces  and shouted into them. A decade later  they  didn't mind   to be taken for  loonies,  as they  spoke in public,  seemingly to themselves, using earpieces with their handsets.  This year,  get set for another bunch of goofies  who will soon appear in public,  their heads encased in all-encompassing goggles.  Spare your scorn:  they're busy in a virtual  duniya of their own , touching  the future -- virtually. 
Virtual  Reality (VR) headsets   are now widely available -- and while the big global offerings  this year,   may come with an asking price of  Rs 50,000 to  Rs 1 lakh,  jugaad is at work here too -- and Indian innovators  have already launched  VR gear that costs  than Rs 2000, or is even given away free with some smart phone brands.  What's more,  young Indian developers  have created an ecosystem of  3-D VR content, without  which,  the most fancy headsets are so much headache rather than a heady experience.
Yet VR as we know it today is in fact the Second Coming  of the technology and  like so many of today's personal technologies like smart watches  and gesture controls,    drew inspiration from science fiction.  The termVR  first popped up in  'The Judas Mandala', a 1982 novel by Australian Damien Broderick. Ten years later  immersive and   computer simulated  3-D environments  were created  at enormous expense, using special studios,  head-mounted  LCD displays,  special  haptic ( that is, touchy-feely) gloves fed by powerful desktop computers. 
Remember  Michael Douglas as the embattled techie in the film version of Michael Crichton's thriller "Disclosure"  entering the VR system of his company to access  the records spiked  by  his vengeful female boss ( Demi Moore)?  That was 1994, and one of the first visualizations  of VR that the lay public got to see
That same year, the late Dr N. Seshagiri, then Director -General, National Informatics Centre,  had set up one of the world's first VR Labs in Delhi --  VELNIC or the Virtual Environment Lab of NIC.  He made a dramatic entrance  in Hyderabad,   a few weeks later, at  the Indian Computer Congress,  wearing a VR head set  as he delivered his keynote address, illustrating how all government records could be virtualized and stored for posterity the VR way. Fiction had morphed into fact.
The 1990s brand of VR was too elitist  and too costly ( the  Indian VELNIC system, one of the cheapest in the world,  cost  the equivalent  of $ 80,000), to make much of an impact except as a tool for the military to mimic war games. It shrivelled and died --- only to  see nirvana   two decades later,   around 2014.
Meanwhile the geeks  had learnt their lesson:  technology had to touch people if it was to be meaningful or  commercially viable. VR Mark II is doing just that.
In March 2014,  Facebook spent $ 2 billion to  acquire a US  company, Oculus VR, that  was making the  modern virtual reality headset. Their product, Oculus Rift was finally launched in a few select markets earlier this year,  but its India availability has not been announced. The Rift is a  $ 599 (Rs 40,000) headset which was widely praised  as the most immersive product in this niche -- till a few weeks ago, the Taiwan-based  HTC upstaged it with its  own offering , Vive, at $ 799 (Rs 56000). While Rift -- thanks to its Microsoft connection  --uses the XBox game pad as its controller, Vive comes with dedicated motion controllers and  a set of base stations. (Read our preview of HTC Vive here)
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For Indian innovation in VR, see our special feature
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Both these contenders at the pricey end of VR need a dedicated, graphics-enabled  PC to work. Add that cost and they are  well above Rs 1 lakh.   Sony has announced  its own VR headset  which will work with the PlayStation 4 console   but the product is not expected  till October.
The need to tether  the VR system to a computer may yet  become a roadblock  for such systems -- unless they can come up with an experience that is literally out of this world.   Meanwhile,  a disruptor  has appeared on the scene -- VR headsets that are stripped  down in their abilities and harness the computing power of a smart phone rather than a PC.  Samsung's Gear VR is a leader in this new, emerging segment  but its use is limited to a small range of Samsung phones. ( read our review here )
With neither Oculus Rift nor HTC hive available here,  the phone-based  VR segment is  exploiting its window of opportunity.  Last year,  Google launched a very basic do-it-yourself  headset called Cardboard -- which was just that, a  brown box with a couple of lenses stuck in and with rubber bands to  hold the phone. You can buy a kit online for about Rs 500.  Companies  like OnePlus  and last week Tata Motors, have given away such kits for free,  in millions to promote their products with a compatible 3-D VR app.




    


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