Back in the early 1990’s there was this little-known technology that was making a push to get into the homes of every American at the time. No, it wasn’t VR. It was CD-i.
Phillips created the CD-i (Compact Disc Interactive) as a joint-venture with Sony. The purpose of the product line was to make CD-ROM technology more accessible by creating a multi-media platform that was less expensive than a full desktop PC with a CD-ROM drive installed. It was also intended to be a stand-alone multi-media device capable of producing MPEG video. With a special card the machine could play, first CD-i Video Discs (Compact Disc Interactive Video Discs) then the Compact Disc Digital Video format (shortened to VCD for Video CD) It gets a little confusing but around this time they were working with Sony to spread Video CD to the world as a replacement for LaserDisc. The technology eventually faded into obscurity. The machine’s legacy lives in in very false rumors spreading mis-information around the internet involving Sony, Nintendo and a conspiracy that is flat false and easy to disprove. However, the technology didn’t just end. You see, contrary to popular belief, the CD-i was neither a video game platform, nor a commercial failure. Phillips continued to produce the machines well into the 2000’s and the Video CD format it spawned, lives on to this day, albeit mostly in Asia.
What’s the point? Well once it was determined CD-i could be used for interactive, low-cost MPEG video discs large employers across the country quickly turned to the format. During the heyday companies were churning out low-cost employee training videos using the format because they were cheaper to produce than a LaserDisc yet more versatile than a VHS tape. Keep in mind this was before DVD, which did ultimately prevent the format from becoming a mainstream retail product to the masses, however like Beta Max before it, the format lived on in the professional realm for far longer than anyone would have ever expected.
We are now starting to see a similar pattern with Virtual Reality. Companies are starting to figure out that as a format VR can be used as employee training technology rather than home entertainment technology. Upon first glance one might be inclined to see companies like Walmart or UPS announce they will be using VR tech to train new hires as a sign the technology is not entirely dead as a commercial entertainment product.
I was almost one of those people until I remembered the CD-i players I kept running into as late as 2009. A budget minded corporation invests in an employee training program, typically for a ten year duration. Thus, when companies turned to CD-i players in the 90’s, they invested in the tech they were not about to abandon it. That didn’t do anything for adoption of software on a wide scale. Companies could press their own CD’s for pennies using standard equipment. Even though most DVD players could play Video CD’s, companies that purchased the dedicated machines were highly likely to stick with them for the long run. I saw this a lot in fact.
The reason why even a large retailer like Walmart adopting the technology and even commissioning a specific piece of software won’t necessarily translate to mass-market adoption is simple. Walmart only needs to purchase the software one time for a specific use. That won’t do much for Electronic Arts. They won’t care if Walmart purchases 5 million of the machines, that’s not going to be 5 million gamers playing Madden VR, that’s going to be a set number of stores buying the machine for a specific purpose. In other words, all it means is hardware sales might see a small bump in sales but as far as adoption rates go, it won’t make an impact at all.
Why am I writing about it then? Obviously I was a champion of Virtual Reality. I continued to believe it would be like CD ROM, which replaced CD-i in the market before giving way to the superior DVD. My hope was the PS5 would come packed in some way with Playstation VR.
The more I see businesses adopting VR technology for purposes other than video games the more mixed my feelings become. Ideally, I want to live in a virtual world where I put on my headset and do all the fun things I suspect I don’t have the drive to do in real life. Partially because of money. I can’t ever see myself getting on a plane and flying to Paris, France. However I can see myself taking a virtual tour using a VR machine, if it were believable enough.
What I really want is to buy The Sims VR and live out my fantasy life or pick up Legend of Zelda VR and fight the forces of evil.
What I don’t want is to go into a new job and be told to put on a VR headset for a virtual training session rather than being given a physical tour of the place I am there to learn. I’m not entirely certain the VR method is necessarily a bad thing, but it doesn’t really a settle my fears that gamers aren’t adopting VR in the numbers I would like.
I haven’t completely given up hope on the technology taking off just yet. I just don’t have a ton of confidence in Walmart being the champions of the technology.