For hundreds of years, people have dreamed of virtual reality technologies. Countless sci-fi writers and filmmakers have imagined futures in which we talk to holograms, immerse ourselves in artificial worlds, and manipulate three-dimensional digital models. But until the 1980s, our technology simply hadn’t developed to a point where virtual reality was feasible.
In the 80s, though, rudimentary VR technology finally arrived and was taken up with much enthusiasm by a few pioneering companies. It found homes in the military, which began training its personnel in flight simulators, and in niche scientific applications. But VR somehow never managed to find a foothold in the consumer market. So the boom was short-lived: by the 1990s, VR had once again vanished from the public eye. It was seen as a pipe dream, an unmarketable novelty, and for almost two decades investors wanted nothing to do with it.
So even while our technology got better and better, the field of virtual reality made few steps forward. The major tech corporations shied away, and there was little indication from the public of any significant demand. Until crowdfunding arrived on the scene, that is.
When Kickstarter launched in April of 2009, it fundamentally changed the business world forever. Before, companies had gambled on the long and costly process of developing products, marketing them, releasing them to the public, and only then finding out if they would sell. It meant generations of products that were mere variations on those that had come before. It meant companies looked for safe bets when developing products.
But when Kickstarter debuted, it suddenly gave companies and entrepreneurs––regardless of their size or the amount of resources they had at their disposal––the ability to test the market during the early stages of development. For the first time, startups gained an invaluable ability to demonstrate demand, approximate what consumers were willing to pay for their products, fundraise their projects to the next level, and then approach investors armed with a demonstrably valuable business plan.
A Recent History of Success
Take Oculus Rift, for instance. In 2012, they launched a Kickstarter campaign with a goal of $250,000, promising developer kits to those who contributed a certain amount. Oculus was a smalltime operation, with humble goals and an expectation that they would be extremely fortunate to earn out that quarter-million dollar goal. 9,500 contributions later, they had raised $2.4 million and proven to the world just how eager people are for virtual reality to become a marketplace reality. This moment will go down in the books as the official start of the VR renaissance. Two years later, Oculus was purchased for a whopping $2 billion by Facebook, and the Rift is now slotted to hit shelves in the first quarter of 2016.
But Oculus isn’t the only VR success story to be borne on the back of crowdfunding. Today, we have IndieGoGo, in which users get equity in exchange for their investments in budding companies; Fig, which is a crowdfuding site dedicated exclusively to video game development; and Smallknot, which specifically links would-be contributors to local startups in their neighborhoods. So as crowdfunding platforms have multiplied, so have opportunities for emerging VR companies. In fact, on this recent infographic highlighting the top gadgets of 2015, the majority of products listed were crowdfunded during the early stages of their development. This includes Avegant’s Glyph (which shattered its quarter-million dollar Kickstarter goal in just four hours before raising a total of $1.5 million)
A Bright Future for Innovation
In six years, Kickstarter has brought together more than 2.2 million people to support more than 18,000 projects that have inspired them. The site has raised some $320 million and sparked a climate of innovation that has propelled the virtual reality industry to unprecedented heights. Thanks to crowdfunding, the distance between demand and development is smaller than ever, and the voice of the end user finally has a place in the development process. What’s more, crowdfunding allows individual inventors and entrepreneurs to launch big projects without the kind of big capital that only major corporations have access to. So crowdfunding has contributed to a leveling of the playing field and a democratization of the technological world, wherein fringe ideas and risky concepts can find funding even if wealthy investors balk.
We can now confidently say that virtual reality tech has taken a firm hold in the consumer marketplace. But more importantly, we can now say that innovative technology has a better chance than ever before of finding its way to consumers. So the future looks bright for innovation, and that means great things lie ahead for virtual reality.