The dream of the ’90s is alive in Brisbane. Virtual reality is back in a big way, and a dedicated group of local enthusiasts is at the forefront of this emerging technology.

“Virtual reality (VR) is very much like what you see in movies, or read in sci-fi books, and involves a head mounted display (HMD) that renders a virtual environment on a screen in front of your eyes,” explains Alexander Van Cooten from the Brisbane VR Club.

“With today’s technology this involves either one screen or two for each eye with lenses in between your eyes and the high resolution screens. These lenses warp the image being shown on the screen(s) to wrap around your field of view (FOV) preventing the screen from looking like a flat window in front of your face. The screen(s) are split in two, on which slightly different images are rendered to give you depth perception. This is because yours eyes are spaced apart as well, and take in slightly different points of view to your brain.

“Currently you need a very powerful computer to run the tethered (uses a cable) HMDs, or you can get a high end phone to run on a mobile VR headset. At the Brisbane VR Club we know a lot about both of these options and would be happy to help you get a setup that suits you!”

If you were around for the first, failed VR boom in the ’90s — or if you owned one of Nintendo’s infamous Virtual Boys — then this will all sound familiar, and you’ve probably been burned before. This time, however, Alexander says VR is here to stay.

“VR has had a number of false starts,” Alexander admits. “In the ’80s and ’90s the media hype overtook the technology, and promised the impossible.

“Today you already have a device that you carry around in your pocket that is powerful enough to render a virtual environment. That’s your mobile phone. So this time around we are building on an ecosystem that is already in place. It’s not perfect yet, but high end phones will render an environment well enough for you to actually feel present in that imaginary space. As for the tethered experiences, the hardware works, it’s just too expensive at this point.

“Realistically you will still be constrained by the environment you are physically in. You can’t run in one direction forever, so we’re seeing tricks like point-and-teleport so you can get around large virtual spaces without moving.”

This is an exciting time for VR fans, with the forthcoming release of the Oculus Rift and Playstation VR, but Alexander says it will be a while before the technology is widely embraced by consumers.

“Over this year and the next VR is going to enter a struggle due to the lack of content suitable for VR,” he explains. “Everyone is making games and using the old ways instead of really figuring out how to design for VR. There’s also a lack of standardisation for VR platforms. In 2019 everything will have settled down.

“A lot of the people who jumped into VR to start companies will have dropped out and our selections of HMDs will be at a higher standard. There will be higher quality mobile devices — still using your phone but also some with dedicated/integrated screens — in the market and we will see the beginning of VR streaming (no cables needed) enter our homes.

“Prices will have dropped but the more you pay the better the experience you will get. More input devices will be out but there will be one main input device which will become the standard, most likely VR gloves. Computer vision will also be a big component whereby you will be able to opt out of using an input device and simply track your hands in VR. By 2024 computer vision will be mainstream and VR streaming will used on most systems. That will be the year VR is considered ‘normal’ and a success.

“But that’s only if the economy doesn’t tank, and compelling content comes out at the right time along the way. Since Facebook has turned their sights on VR, dedicating $2 billion to acquiring the leading consumer HMD company Oculus, I know VR is going to make it this time.”

The Brisbane VR Club, then, is dedicated to giving Brisbane audiences a taste of this new technology, and encouraging Brisbane developers to explore its potential.

“Our main purpose is to support VR developers and to showcase VR for the public to come and experience and learn more about what’s possible today,” Alex says.

“We have been part of a number of festivals, including Brisbane Powerhouse’s IRL, and have held workshops at places like the Brisbane State Library to teach people how to create their own VR experiences. We are the main network in Brisbane if you are interested in VR. Anyone who is doing VR in Brisbane is connected to us in some way, and we have partner meet-ups nationally and international. So if you want to get into VR, come and speak to us.

“The club is open to anyone. Probably don’t bring your babies, though, as the headsets won’t fit them properly. No current HMDs fit pets either (although there is talk going around that there may eventually be). So our meet-ups are strictly for humans only.”

The next Brisbane VR Club meet-up will be held at The Glasshouse @ QUT Kelvin Grove tomorrow (Thursday 4 February) from 5:30pm, with guest speaker David Zwierzchaczewski (a 3D animation specialist for Autodesk ANZ) and demos of the Oculus Rift and Vive VR platforms. For more information, visit the Facebook event page.