Imagine you're out for your evening run, when suddenly the Zombie Apocalypse begins. Now, instead of your normal loop around the park, you have to dodge the walking dead, who are lurching from behind trees, trying to eat your brains. All at once, your entire survival is at stake, just trying to get back home again.
It's more than a fantasy. Virtual reality startups would like to create new experiences for consumer like this, adding projected visual elements to the real world, which can turn the quotidian into pulse-quickening adventures, among other things.
It may sound like it's a long way off, but in fact it's not. Dozens of startups are actively working to create the technology and content for such interactions, and 2016 is likely to be an important year for virtual reality technology and its much younger sibling, augmented reality.
Among other advances you can expect in 2016, consumer-facing companies that are releasing the latest generation of virtual reality headsets will continue to launch more advanced devices. These will allow people to more fully immerse themselves in virtual reality experiences with amped up visuals, sound, and motion trackers.
The big companies pushing VR this year include Google with its low-cost Cardboard headset. However, more expensive versions are coming out in a steady stream, including from Sony, whose new PlayStation comes with a state of the art headset. Samsung and its Gear product, and HTC's Vive, as well as smaller companies will also play a critical role.
Still, it's important not to put the cart before the horse. The next big leap in virtual reality is likely to be--a gigantic baby step. That's because virtual reality has hundreds, if not thousands, of moving parts that need to coalesce before it becomes a mass-market phenomenon. Also, consumers will need to be convinced, which can be a hard sell when headset prices can cost $500 or more, and could require computers with lots or processing power as peripheral devices.
When all of these pieces will fuse into a mass-market phenomenon is anyone's guess. "We'll see what kind of adoption these headsets will get over the long haul," says Nizar Tarhuni, a virtual reality analyst for Pitchbook, a venture capital and private equity research firm. "The content has to be flawless, and the technology has to keep growing, and become cheaper to get mass-market adoption. "
One startup working diligently to create streaming virtual reality content is the Laguna Beach, California-based NextVR, which has developed a niche in the sporting events category.
NextVR, which was founded in 2009 initially as a 3-D television broadcasting concern and then re-launched as a virtual reality company in 2012, has since received about $35 million in investment from venture capital firms including Formation 8 and Time Warner Investments.
It has inked partnerships with Turner Broadcasting and the National Basketball Association to broadcast live, virtual reality versions of basketball games, to consumers with Samsung Gear headsets.
"We are the only ones who do live-action, virtual reality capture in this way," says David Cole, co-founder of NextVR, who adds that the basketball broadcasts are like having court-side seats at sporting events.
In the coming years, virtual reality is expected to morph into augmented reality, where projected images take their place seamlessly in the real world. The company most often associated with augmented reality is Magic Leap. Although Magic Leap declined to be interview for this story, Tarhuni says the company is thought to have developed a device that overlays holographic images onto its users' real-world environment.
Magic Leap, of Dania, Florida, has received a staggering $600 million in funding so far, including from Google Ventures, and is reportedly seeking close to $1 billion more from venture investors, including Chinese e-commerce company Alibaba.
Still, we're in the early days for both augmented and virtual reality, venture capitalists say.
"Magic Leap has a tremendous amount of buzz," says Venky Ganesan, a partner at Menlo Partners, in Menlo Park, California. "But the real paradigm shift for virtual reality is still two to three years away." Which means you'll have to get your Zombie Apocalypse in more conventional ways, at least for the time being.