CES: Virtual Reality Has Young Adults Cautiously Optimistic

The second wave of virtual reality is here, and with it comes a burst of awareness and interest from young adults. The edgy and experimental virtual reality projects of the mid-90’s have given way to the consumer, with many news outlets billing 2016 as the “year of virtual reality.” I call out the two waves of virtual reality because many people in their early to mid twenties have no idea that the first wave ever happened, though the aesthetics, anxieties, and excitement that it produced seem to have carried into the modern perception of what virtual reality is today.

For a week I have been asking friends with different backgrounds about what current trends in technology interest them most, to which they have almost exclusively responded with virtual and augmented reality.

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For those who aren’t up to date on what virtual reality looks like today, their imagined descriptions seem to come straight out of 1992’s “The Lawnmower Man”: full body suits with neon piping, arms flailing wildly, and huge helmets which lock forcefully onto the wearer’s head. A dystopian movie about the dangers of dissociation from reality, its anxieties seem to have carried over into a generation, which has, for the most part, never seen it.

Sam Dembling, a sophomore philosophy major, told me that virtual reality games simply “freak him out,” and that he saw potential uses of augmented reality that reduced privacy. Aaron Posner, an English major, expressed similar concerns about the continued blurring of virtual and real. Knar Hovakimyan, who studies linguistics, thought that augmented reality was scarier, but also exciting, because of how she imagines it will one day change our day-to-day lives.

On the other hand, there is a palpable sense of excitement. When I asked Aaron if his concerns meant he wasn’t interested in owning a virtual reality device, he snapped back that he would “definitely want it to be widespread” because the potential for new kinds of storytelling was so exciting to him. Knar was excited to try virtual reality games, and said she was excited to see how gaming evolved with the new technology.

The one thing that everybody I talked to shared was that they had never experienced virtual reality. So far the Oculus Rift and other devices have been niche products reserved mostly for serious gamers. With widespread availability on the horizon, a cautious yet optimistic curiosity has many young adults waiting to see what the year holds.

With VR hardware soon to be released by Oculus and Sony, January’s CES should be the next step toward creating awareness for consumers of all ages. We expect VR announcements from companies including Google, GoPro, HTC, NextVR, Sixense and others. ETCentric will be reporting from the CES show floor on the latest in virtual reality and related technologies.