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Why Reality Hasn't Gone Virtual: Google Goggles and the 'Headset Problem'

It isn’t enough that our gadgets work well—they have to look good too.

One of the greatest forgotten Saturday Night Live sketches is called "Virtual Reality Books." In the faux-informercial, a spokesman dons a virtual reality headset and glove, while Phil Hartman narrates: "In an age of fiber optics and laser technology, books have just been left behind. That is, till now." We see that the spokesman has been virtually transported into a suburban living room, where a copy of Moby Dick rests on a table. "Welcome to the ultimate reading experience," Hartman continues. "It's like reading a book in your living room—only better!"

The sketch aired in 1994, at the tail end of a technological era when virtual reality was the thought to be the next frontier. Huge sums of money poured into computer hardware during the late 1980s, resulting in a slew of wearable goggles, headsets, and other accessories intended to introduce virtual reality to popular culture. Yet as evidenced by the SNL sketch, virtual reality was more of a curiosity that was never taken entirely seriously by most consumers.

Now, with Google announcing plans to deliver 3G and 4G-connected data display glasses, it's clear that interest in virtual reality has not waned completely. According to an article in The New York Times, Google’s new eyeglasses will “be more like smartphones, used when needed, with the lenses serving as a kind of see-through computer monitor.” While the design of the product is still under wraps, those who have seen the glasses report they will have a built-in camera that senses what the wearer is viewing and returns graphics and information in the wearer’s field of view.

But despite various hardware companies' attempts to popularize virtual reality over the years, the idea of wearing special glasses never caught on. With their huge price tag and bulky, impractical design, virtual reality headsets never found their way to consumer electronic shelves, save for a few toy versions marketed to kids, like Nintendo's Virtual Boy. Now, Google is taking a gamble with an already critical consumer base; if people raise such a stink about the glasses they wear in 90 minutes of darkness while watching a 3-D movie, imagine the skepticism that will arise once Google’s glasses are finally unveiled. Today, it isn’t enough that our gadgets work well—they have to look good too.

Yet human fascination with virtual reality goggles—or head-mounted displays, as they are officially known—goes as far back as the Victorian era, when physicist Sir Charles Wheatstone invented the stereoscope to explain human binocular vision. The stereoscope was a handheld viewer that fit over the eyes, containing two side-by-side images of the same object photographed at a slightly different angles. Human eyes automatically combine the two, resulting in a 3D photograph that captivated children and adults alike.

Interest in virtual reality truly exploded in the late 1980s, when California-based tech company VPL Research created the Eyephones, bulky headgear containing a crystal display for each eye. The Eyephones and a connected glove worn on the user's hand transported the user into a virtual reality environment created through a database of polygons. The Eyephones could sense the position of the user’s head and adjust the virtual environment accordingly, while the glove detected the user’s hand, allowing her to manipulate objects in the virtual realm.

The initial problem with the Eyephones stemmed from the limitations of 1980s technology; a 1990 article in InfoWorld explains the headset could only generate five or six frames per second, vastly slower than the 30 frames per second generated by common television sets at the time. The price was also a major deterrent to continued experimentation—the entire Eyephones system, including the computers required to run it, cost upwards of $250,000. Beyond the pricetag, the bulkiness of the Eyephones didn’t make sense on a consumer level; they weren’t comfortable to wear and they looked as silly as they felt. Though “virtual reality” remained the buzzword of computer technology through the early 1990s, these limitations caused investors to lose interest and move onto the then-burgeoning field of mobile technology.

The latest effort at virtual reality comes in part from people's need to feed their addictions to their mobile devices while keeping their eyes on the road. In moving toward a Minority Report-type society in which data is displayed seemingly out of thin air in front of viewers' eyes, the Google goggles seem to be an interim step. If the product makes it to market, it requires consumers to don bulky eyewear for the sake of seamlessly integrating cellphones into their lives—an assumption previous forays have contradicted time and time again. Whether the glasses are designed to look like a sleek pair of Oakley shades or retro-styled horn-rims, the product will have a limited appeal. Until Google develops an option that doesn’t compromise our fashion sense, we will keep looking down, bumping into pedestrians as we check messages on our smartphones.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user brizoni

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