The Virtual Reality Gold Rush: Part One


In the first of a three-part series, Don Anderson, We Are Social’s Managing Director in Singapore, examines the origins of virtual reality and the potential opportunities for content creation and brand marketing.

In 1983 noted American special effects director Douglas Trumbull released Brainstorm, a generally unremarkable science fiction movie largely known for the tragic death of star Natalie Wood before filming was completed, resulting in an awkward ending requiring a body double and dubbed dialogue.

Largely ignored until now, the film – which also starred a young Christopher Walken – told the story of two researchers who develop a technology that allows the recording and playback of a person’s thoughts and experiences onto videotape, which others can receive through a specially designed helmet. Fast forward 32 years later and the science behind it is actually closer to reality than ever before.

Fact: The promise of virtual reality has never before been as great as it is today.

Fact: We’ve been promised virtual reality for years and seen nothing substantial out of it.

With the debut of the virtual reality head-mounted display Oculus Rift on Kickstarter in 2012, and Microsoft’s recently announced HoloLens technology, we are on the verge of a phenomenal change in media and communications not seen since the start of the Internet. By all accounts, the promise of digitally enabled experiences that are so immersive and impactful that you don’t have to leave your own living room has never been so close to being realised.

But should we believe the hype?

Hollywood has been one of the first industries to embrace virtual reality’s potential, despite a long and inconsistent relationship with the field. From The Lawnmower Man through to Strange Days, the technology has long been portrayed as a potential threat to society and has almost always involved an epic battle between good and evil.

The Lawnmower Man, the tale of a simple man who is turned into a genius through virtual reality and then tries to take over the world with his newfound intelligence. Released in 1992, two years before the launch of Netscape.

The universally panned Virtuosity, featuring future Best Actor winner Denzel Washington trying to capture future Best Actor winner Russell Crowe, focused on a VR-produced serial killer who manages to escape into the real world.

Strange Days, directed and written by two future best director winners – Kathryn Bigelow of Hurt Locker fame and James Cameron. Here, Los Angeles is a war zone and people are able to record their memories and physical sensations through an illegal device called a SQUID – a Superconducting Quantum Interference Device.

We are roughly eight to 12 months away from virtual reality finding broad mainstream exposure, (possibly longer in term of consumer adoption), with a host of original equipment manufacturers like Lenovo, HTC, Sony and others promising a raft of devices. The accompanying fanfare promises a new future for media and communications, with enthusiastic claims being tossed about by everyone from Mark Zuckerberg to Steven Spielberg.

To truly understand the virtual reality space and its potential, we need to go back some 50 years ago to the original premise of providing sensations and experiences beyond the context of traditional cinema and broadcast content.

Virtual reality’s roots were formed around 1965 via the work of American computer scientist and Internet pioneer Ivan Sutherland who introduced the ‘Ultimate Display’ – a device that could overlay virtual wireframe interiors onto a room. During this time the military was conducting its own research and investing in the technology’s potential for flight simulation and training.

Skipping a few decades ahead to the 1980s, NASA prototyped the first Virtual Environment Workstation, built from a motorcycle helmet, Sony Watchman LCD displays and wide-angle stereoscope optics. This was the first to incorporate a dataglove which included a tracker that could measure a hand’s position and orientation, and allowed the user to interact with the virtual world.

By 1993, we were seeing numerous attempts to develop the next generation, multi-player virtual reality entertainment systems. They weren’t cheap – even the cheapest commercially available VR units were roughly US$25K and upward. A few years later and we were testing out headsets that enabled users to control a camera, simply through head movements.


Just before the close of the 20th century, Nissan experimented with VR-enabled driving simulators at the annual Tokyo Motor Show.


The Humphrey II device allowed virtual free flight through a 3D reconstruction the city of Linz in 2003.

For all that research and investment, who could have imagined that here, in 2015, strapping a piece of cardboard and a smartphone to our heads would pretty much provide the same experience.

Launched at Google’s annual I/O developer conference in 2014, the simplistic Cardboard headset (you can create it yourself or order one online for as little as US$5), has finally taken virtual reality to the masses.


We could soon see more of these images flooding the social networks. Source:

The company’s commitment to this space was further echoed at this year’s I/O conference through its announced partnership with GoPro, the launch of a larger Cardboard design for phablets and its Expeditions education initiative that will enable teachers to take students on VR field trips.

Coming up in the series: The Virtual Reality Gold Rush Part Two, featuring Getting ‘Luckey’ with Oculus Rift, and Brands Wade In.