My own first experience of virtual reality was a PC game bought for me by my parents in 1997 called Virtual Springfield. I was ten years old and it blew my mind.
It was a game that allowed players to wander the home town of The Simpsons and visit some of its most iconic landmarks: The Kwik-E-Mart, Springfield Elementary School, the Nuclear Power Plant, and interact with some of the colourful locals: Bart, Homer and if you had time, maybe Moe.
Of course, I know this wasn’t really virtual reality. This was a simulation of a simulation of reality, in which I was transported to another world. Nothing about it would wash with today’s youth, from the clunky graphics to the fifteen minute load time. But to me, this was the future.
Next month, a whole new kind of future arrives on our doorsteps with the worldwide launch of the first wave of virtual reality headsets for the 21st century.
Among them is the Oculus Rift, a headset that has caused a stir among tech heads and civilians alike – and not only because Facebook has bought it for $2bn – but because it promises to take the future of play and place it in the palm of our hands. Well, at least strap it around our heads and project it into our eyes.
The Oculus though, is far from alone in the field and was just one of no fewer than 14 pioneers in the virtual reality space at this year’s Las Vegas Consumer Electronics Show, which is not a bad turnout for a tech that is said to be ready to embark on its maiden voyage into the consumer market only this year.
“But what are you saying? Virtual Reality has been around since before you were in nappies”, I hear the majority of you old enough to know better than to heckle, cry. You are very right. And the truth is, it’s been rooted here in the toy industry for even longer than that.
Richard Heayes, a former Hasbro designer turned independent toy inventor would argue that Mattel nailed virtual reality in the toy space when it first launched the original View Master in the 60s.
‘As you stare at a slide of the Grand Canyon, for that moment in time,’ goes his argument, ‘you are taken to a whole new world.’
And if that’s an argument you can get on board with, perhaps the viewpoint can be stretched further and into a category of play that has the ability to keep youngsters and adults alike immersed in it for hours upon end.
Recounting a conversation I had with Andrew Harman, founder of YAY Games and creator of table top title Frankenstein’s Bodies about the resurgence of board games, he told me that “board games and table top games are completely immersive.
“They draw you in with these completely immersive –often bonkers – storylines, have you taking on a new version of yourself and interacting with that world around you.”
It sounds just like the tagline for any number of Virtual Reality headsets.
Evolution has of course taken a hold, and when it comes to toys, that evolution is exaggerated out of necessity to keep an ever tech savvy youth engaged in the market. It’s often quipped that the window for toy marketing is growing younger, and anything older than nine or ten is considered lost to the video games market.
So, with such close alignment to a market that is exciting the youth of today, is it time for toys to embrace the potential new technology like virtual reality boasts and give kids a reason to remain younger for longer?
After all, who’s to say the geniuses at Silicon Valley and the leaders in VR technology of today weren’t first inspired by gazing at the Grand Canyon through their own original Viewmasters, way back when.