The hype around Virtual reality (VR) headsets and glasses has been heating up for several years now, and makers of these devices claim that they offer unique experiences not available through any other means of computing.
Naysayers, including many content creators, feel that virtual reality is still a distance away from where it should be.
VR, also called immersive multimedia, uses computers, smartphones and sensory devices to simulate or enhance a physical environment. Devices known as head-mounted displays have been created that stimulate your senses of sight, hearing, touch and even smell. The holy grail of virtual reality is to create an experience so lifelike that you'll forget it's not real.
As with all things in a capitalist world, the primary force driving virtual reality is commerce.
For example, OnePlus, a Chinese maker of smartphones and other gear, just unveiled its OnePlus Loop VR headset and gave away 30,000 units for free. To use the device, you slip your smartphone into the headset, which then whisks you away to The Loop, a simulated space station where you can buy high-tech merchandise.
But what's probably more significant to the VR experience of the future is a partnership formed by MasterCard, the payment card giant.
In March this year, MasterCard teamed up with a maker of VR gear, Wearality, to give fans attending a Florida golf tournament the opportunity to buy goods via a set of VR glasses. For example, you could "watch" a pro golfer take on a hole and purchase items within your view, such as the golfer's shirt or clubs.
Technology like this may eventually make it possible for you to instantly buy almost anything you see as you go about your life.
Another major credit card payments processor, Vantiv, took advantage of the Money 20/20 conference to run a hackathon aimed at delivering Virtual Reality solutions for commerce. The company believes that virtual reality is the way of the e-commerce future.
Capital One has already partnered with Amazon to deliver customer support via Amazon Echo. Its customers can enable the Capital One skill to check their account balances, track spending or pay their bills by simply asking "Alexa".
Google gave VR a shot in the arm last year when it launched its Google Cardboard virtual device at a price of $15. You assemble the cardboard device yourself and then use it to view compatible apps. Google has recently unveiled a VR operating system called Daydream, as well as several other VR initiatives.
Against this rosy backdrop is arrayed a bevy of backbiters, who claim that using VR devices in the field doesn't live up to the promise of impressive demonstrations under controlled conditions. According to the head of a production studio, Rene Pinnell, the content available for VR doesn't fulfill the potential of the hardware. Most content currently takes the forms of either games, or shopping apps that let you buy the games.
John Riccitiello, CEO of developer tool provider Unity, called 2016 a duct-tape year, in which hype will yield to disappointment. But he also believes that VR, and its related technology known as augmented reality (AR), will eventually outgrow today's expectations, just the way television and radio did after they were first launched. Riccitiello sees a future in which developers create VR content within a VR environment, akin to entering the Matrix in the 1999 film of the same name.
In the meantime, estimates for the growth of VR are all over the map. One consulting firm, Analysis Group, recently estimated that VR revenue from now through 2020 will range between $2.8 billion and $126 billion. In reality, no one seems to have a handle on what will happen near term in the VR marketplace.
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