Tech Tent: Time for VR to face reality?

Rory Cellan-Jones
Technology correspondent
@BBCRoryCJon Twitter

Image source, Varjo
Image caption,
The Varjo headset displays a more detailed image (left) compared to regular VR (right)

Just a couple of years ago it seemed Virtual Reality (VR) was finally going to become an important feature in all of our lives.

But on Tech Tent this week we ask whether it's time for the VR industry to get real - and admit that most people aren't yet ready to spend time in virtual worlds.

Billions of dollars have been invested in VR by the likes of Sony, Facebook's Oculus division and HTC, whose Vive system was at one stage predicted to revive the ailing company's fortunes.

But so far, sales of headsets have proved disappointing and I've yet to hear anyone rave about the VR game they were playing last night - it seems the revolution may have to be postponed again.

But a Finnish start-up founded by refugees from Nokia thinks it knows what the problem is - virtual reality just isn't real enough. Varjo has developed a high-end headset promising human eye resolution and aimed at business users - it will be priced at an eye-popping level, somewhere between €5,000 (£4,400) and €10,000.

When the Varjo team came into Tech Tent HQ, I got a demo and was impressed by the realism of the experience. I was first shown an artist's studio where you could almost smell the paint and breathe in the dust - it was captured by taking more than 2,000 photos.

Then I was moved into an aircraft cockpit, again a very real representation and with more obvious applications as a training environment - because that's where Varjo thinks VR can thrive.

"VR of today has been meant for gaming, taking you to different worlds, not for practical purposes," one of the firm's founders, Urho Konttori, tells us.

He says plenty of companies are trying to use VR for training but are hampered by the fact that headsets are just too low resolution, so people soon get bored with the experience.

We saw a prototype - Varjo aims to release its headset by the end of this year and is hoping for interest from the automotive, aerospace and architecture industries.

Image source, PA
Image caption,
VR has been promoted as a way to make gaming more immersive

It is realistic enough to know that far bigger companies will be racing to provide similar high-resolution experiences but is confident Varjo has a head start and some protection from imitators: "We patented the hell out of everything we do," says Mr Konttori with a grin.

Still, both Varjo and the wider VR industry have a lot to prove. As a new form of entertainment, virtual reality has proved about as enticing to consumers as 3D television. Perhaps like 3D printing it is destined to find a profitable niche in the workplace rather than at home.

Also in this week's programme:

From Netflix to Amazon Prime Video to the BBC iPlayer, video streaming is becoming the new way we consume TV. But with video accounting for more than half of all internet traffic, we look at the environmental cost of streaming.

And could digital IDs be the answer to getting essential services to people in developing countries whose birth may never have been registered?