VR in the 2010s: My decade with things on my face

From the Nintendo Wii to Oculus to the HoloLens and Pokemon Go, the last 10 years of both VR and AR brought some good, some bad and plenty of weird.

Scott Stein Editor at Large
I started with CNET reviewing laptops in 2009. Now I explore wearable tech, VR/AR, tablets, gaming and future/emerging trends in our changing world. Other obsessions include magic, immersive theater, puzzles, board games, cooking, improv and the New York Jets. My background includes an MFA in theater which I apply to thinking about immersive experiences of the future.
Expertise VR and AR, gaming, metaverse technologies, wearable tech, tablets Credentials
  • Nearly 20 years writing about tech, and over a decade reviewing wearable tech, VR, and AR products and apps
Scott Stein
14 min read

Microsoft's HoloLens 2, in 2019. One of many things I wore on my head this decade.

James Martin/CNET

I had a vision of the future when I was in high school in the early '90s, and it involved a world in which we were immersed in headsets that were doorways into virtual reality. Somehow, over the last 10 years, that dream became utterly real. And then, not real. And then half-real. The future arrived, and then backslid, and is now lurking, waiting to strike. This is a story of a decade with lots of things on my face, and how I'm not living full-time in them... yet. 

Chunky goggles, alien glasses, perception-altering devices big and small: I've seen my face in all of them. It actually started 10 years ago. The fourth story I wrote after starting at CNET in early 2009 was about AR and magic. It wasn't a long post or a great one. But it proves that the term "augmented reality" has been around a lot longer than you think.


VR goes back even further. Around 1991 when I gave a presentation about VR in high school, it was in a hype cycle: Sega was promising its own VR headset and a British company called Virtuality had VR setups in malls. The rest was speculation and science fiction, William Gibson-style dreams and articles in Mondo 2000 about Timothy Leary and hallucinatory cyberspace. Then, things collapsed. By the time I started at CNET, VR was barely known for anything more than the failed Nintendo Virtual Boy

The last decade, it all started again. Some good, some bad, lots of it weird. Weird people with cameras on their faces wandered around San Francisco. A barefoot guy with VR goggles was on the cover of Time. Spielberg made a whole movie about VR. In the summer of 2016, the whole world was obsessed with catching invisible things in parks. 

I think of the last 10 years as My Immersive Decade. Or, the Chaos Before The Change. To many, it looks like "the rise and fall and (maybe) rise again of VR and AR." But the more I look at everything that happened, the more it looks like an arrow pointing towards a future of some perfected immersive connected technology that binds us together in ways that I'm not sure are really comprehensible yet. This decade has just been the test drive.

Nintendo Wii Mini (Red)

The Nintendo Wii Remote. It started here, maybe.

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2009-2010: Remember the Wii

If you thought no one had heard of AR a decade ago, you'd be wrong. There were AR games on systems like the PSP or PlayStation 3, both of which used cameras to overlay graphics on the real world. I thought AR would be a big deal on the iPhone... in 2009. That's because of apps like Yelp, which had a hidden AR mode called Monocle that showed nearby restaurant locations overlaid as dots on the real world. AR, back then, was basic pop-up info on a screen that lined up, sort of, with what the camera was seeing.

And then there was the Nintendo Wii, the godfather of AR and VR this decade. Yes, I'm serious. Its motion-tracking Wii remote controllers, and games like Wii Sports, would be repeated in headsets for years. Think about this year's hottest VR game, Beat Saber. What's the difference between swinging remotes in front of a TV, or while wearing a VR headset?

In 2009, everything was about motion gaming . The Wii Motion Plus' new gyroscope let it better track motion in space. At E3 that year, Sony followed suit with the PlayStation Move, and Microsoft introduced the even stranger Project Natal: it didn't have controllers at all. Instead, it projected infrared dots and used a set of cameras to track motion. It was later called the  Kinect .

CNET reviewed the PlayStation Move and Microsoft Kinect at the end of 2010. The games weren't great, and the hardware needed a lot of room to play in (an early hint of VR's holodeck challenges). Little did we know then that the Kinect was the first hint of the sensor technology that would eventually arrive in the HoloLens in 2015, Google's AR Tango phones in 2016, and the iPhone X's Face ID camera in 2017. And the PlayStation Move would be used as the controllers for Sony's own VR headset in 2016. 

Watch this: What is AR and how does it differ from virtual reality?

2011: Ready, player one

In early 2011, I was playing around with Nintendo's new handheld, the 3DS. If you remember, the 3DS not only had a glasses-free 3D display and motion controls but also came with a packet of cards for AR gaming

But VR's biggest moment that year wasn't a headset... it was a book. Ernest Cline's Ready Player One, a mashed-up futuristic joyride through a VR-addicted future steeped in retro content, became a surprise bestseller. The Janet Maslin New York Times review from August 2011, called it an "ardent fantasy artifact about fantasy culture." I remember reading it and thinking I'd seen a lot of its ideas in the best cyberpunk works from decades earlier. But then, that book ended up inspiring the creator of the biggest VR phenomenon of the decade.


The Oculus Rift -- in our January 2013 CES demo.

Josh Lowensohn/CNET

2012-2013: Enter the Rift

You probably don't remember that in 2012 Sony and J.K. Rowling made a fascinating AR gaming book based on Harry Potter, or a Lazer Tag reboot using early phone-based AR. I do, barely.

But the Oculus Rift, a Kickstarter project launching later that year, promised a realistic and impressive virtual reality of the type I'd dreamed of back in the 90s. I got to try the Oculus Rift for the first time in a demo at CES in January 2013: All I did was glide around a virtual medieval town, but the experience ended up seared into my brain. It seemed like VR was going to become one of the most exciting technologies, for real this time.

Meanwhile, months earlier, parachutists wearing an insane wearable camera on their face jumped out of airplanes over the annual Google I/O developer's conference in San Francisco. Welcome, Google Glass, an AR headset that instantly became an icon of technology's overreach.

Google Glass Explorer Edition

Me in Google Glass, in 2013.

Sarah Tew/CNET

2013: Glassholes everywhere

I was fitted for Google Glass in Google's New York headquarters in 2013: I remember tutorials, guided by Google's PR team as I learned how to control the headset with my voice and a touch bar on the frames. I remember commuting with it on my face on New Jersey Transit trains. I remember getting contact lenses because Glass wouldn't work with my prescription. I remember going down to CNBC and wearing it live on TV, and everyone wondering what, exactly, was this Terminator thing on my face?

Glass looked like a cyborg's smart glasses from the future. Thin, light and with a camera pointed outwards. Weirdly invasive.

Glass was designed as an experiment. It turned into a mascot for tech backlash. I doubt you ever really saw anyone wearing Glass in public, but in San Francisco they became seen as a sign of tech culture's overreach, pushing into everyday life: Glassholes.

Glass didn't do a lot. It took photos and videos, showed little pop-up bits of info in your eye. That's about it. But Glass is still the prototype for every pair of smart glasses made this decade (Vuzix, Spectacles, North Focals). Glass and its pop-up notifications came before a wave of smartwatches that did similar things. Glass predicted our always-recording camera culture and our always-on notification-blitzed life. Google Glass still exists. And I still think it's a lurking sign of where shrunken-down headsets are headed next.


The Samsung Gear VR, in 2014.

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2014: Google and Samsung shrink VR onto your phone

It took until midway through the decade for VR finally became real... for phones . Oculus made its latest PC VR headset available for developers, days before Facebook agreed to buy Oculus for a crazy $2 billion. 

But for Google, VR started surprisingly as a piece of cardboard you folded into shape yourself.

A year after the bizarre debut of Google Glass, Google introduced a simple folding phone accessory, called Google Cardboard, at its 2014 developer conference. It was refreshingly low-tech. It worked like a basic set of 3D glasses for your phone. It looked like a low-rent Viewmaster -- VR experiences on it didn't look great -- but for people who'd never tried VR before it looked good enough. After it started being given away for free at concerts and in newspapers, it became the best tech party favor of the decade. In contrast to Facebook's high-end Oculus, Google Cardboard promised that VR could be done on a shoestring.


Google Cardboard: shoestring VR.

James Martin/CNET

Meanwhile, Samsung and Oculus were unlikely collaborators on a pair of VR goggles that worked with the newest Samsung Galaxy Note phone, a project designed to show how mobile VR could hold the fort until the Oculus Rift arrived in a few years. The Gear VR, compared to Cardboard, looked amazing when it finally arrived at the end of 2014. I took it home over the holidays and wowed my family.

Samsung leaned on the Gear VR to sell its Galaxy phones for the next few years. Google followed suit in 2016 with a similar nicer-than-Cardboard idea in Google Daydream

There was other VR news in 2014 -- Sony announced its own VR headset that year, called Project Morpheus, which eventually became PlayStation VR -- but really, back then, it was suddenly all about scoring a Google Cardboard, and dreaming of VR on phones.


The HoloLens, in 2016.

James Martin/CNET

2015: Here comes the HoloLens

In January 2015, a few reporters were invited to demo a mysterious new device called the HoloLens at Microsoft's headquarters. The first demo, of which Microsoft prevented anyone from recording photos or video, wasn't VR in a closed-off headset. Instead, it created what looked like holograms projected into the real world.

Microsoft's HoloLens seemed like a brave new move, a leapfrogging of the Oculus VR and Google Glass, all in a seemingly impossible standalone PC-free headset. Microsoft used the term "mixed reality" to describe HoloLens, a mix between AR and VR. Suddenly, we wondered, could VR's magic make a leap into everyday life? Could the future be arriving this quickly?

Microsoft leaned on its own properties like Halo and Minecraft at E3 2015 to make its holographic games seem ready for consumers. But, at a cost of thousands of dollars, it became clear that the HoloLens wasn't for everyday people. Some of my later experiences (like playing Super Mario in New York) were messy but fascinating and showed me the broken areas where the HoloLens wasn't yet blending with reality perfectly. The field of view was small. Virtual objects overlapped with real ones. And these "holograms" often looked like semitransparent Disneyland ghosts.

Meanwhile, another company seemingly promising similar ideas, Magic Leap, had been raising a lot of money in secrecy since 2014.  HTC and Valve announced an Oculus competitor, the Vive, that brought a Star Trek holodeck-like experience. Oculus announced wild new controllers for its upcoming Rift that felt like you could move your hands in another world. VR made me cry in 2015, watching a film about Syrian refugees made in partnership with the UN. I tried watching a political debate aired live in VR. Every major VR product I could think of was about to launch the next year. Suddenly VR seemed unavoidable.


The HTC Vive, in 2016.

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2016: The VR/AR floodgates open up, all at once

This was the year when VR became super-saturated. Oculus Rift. HTC Vive. PlayStation VR. Google Daydream. Microsoft's wave of affordable VR headsets. All I can remember from 2016 was trying to keep up with a sudden rush of VR from every direction. I set up holodecks at the office, carried VR home in backpacks, wired my home to dive in on the PlayStation. VR was the future. Palmer Luckey, Oculus' founder, was on the cover of Time. I became a virtual Ghostbuster in a theme park attraction in Times Square.

Promises were sky-high. Some experiences were jaw-dropping. My face was in every set of goggles on the face of the Earth. Most things needed a PC to operate, and lots of hardware required software patches, complex setups and patience, but I loved diving in and finding what weird surprises new apps would hold. Many of the best games VR ever spawned emerged during that first year: Space Pirate Trainer, Fantastic Contraption, Job Simulator.

Trying to explain why VR was amazing wasn't easy, and it definitely wasn't technology that fit easily into any normal home. And many of its best apps felt like demos, or beautiful novelties, or thrill rides you'd try a few times and then want to stop. 

Weirdly enough, my favorite experience that year didn't involve a headset at all. It was an immersive theater experience in downtown Brooklyn, which reminded me that as impressive as VR seemed, it wasn't everything I was dreaming of yet. It wasn't as immersive, or as social, as reality itself.

But it was OK because that summer, the world was more interested in something else.


Pokemon Go was everywhere in 2016.

Niantic Labs

Hello, Pokemon Go

Months before a divisive presidential election, Americans (and everyone else around the world) were gathering as one nation in parks, zoos and parking lots trying to capture Pokemon with their phones. The summer of 2016 was the summer of Pokemon Go, a ridiculous, improbable smash hit on phones.

My local coffee shop had high school kids gathering to find a surprise Squirtle. Central Park was filled with tourists and locals, all blending to virtually treasure-hunt with their phones. The Niantic-created game wasn't holographic face-worn AR in the way companies like Microsoft employed it with the HoloLens. It did layer little critters into the real world, but all you needed was a phone to play with friends. Pokemon Go shifted the whole conversation back to phones again -- and how phones could be our best AR tools.

Google's first AR-focused phone, the Lenovo Phab 2 Pro, arrived at the end of that year with a rear camera that could scan the world and measure objects. Its Tango technology, which was announced all the way back in 2014, used an infrared camera that worked like Microsoft's Kinect, but smaller. The future of phones clearly would head to AR next.


Sofas on subways: ARKit, in 2017.

Screenshots by Sean Hollister/CNET

2017: Apple, Google and the pivot to phone AR

One company that sat out AR and VR for most of the decade? Apple. That changed in a major way at Apple's WWDC developer conference that year, when the company announced Mac support for VR, but more importantly Apple's own augmented reality toolkit, called ARKit, for iOS. 

Apple's AR phone strategy skipped the advanced depth-sensing camera tech of Google's Tango phones, in favor of using standard phone cameras, motion sensors and Apple's onboard graphics in its chips to power AR effects. I saw a virtual lamp on a real table through an iPhone and was convinced. By the time ARKit launched with iOS 11, I started putting virtual Ikea furniture on real subway platforms, and it was stunning.

Apple quickly embraced AR as a killer app for iPhones and iPads. Meanwhile, Google quickly moved to launch its own AR platform for a wide range of Android phones, called ARCore.

Suddenly, a ton of phones could pull off amazing tricks to make objects look like they were superimposed on the world. It added up to weird miniature golf games, constellation-finding apps, a ton of measuring and furniture-shopping tools, and plenty of gimmicks that wore off fast. It all felt like... well, the AR version of what happened a few years before with VR headsets and phones, minus the goggles.

But there was one key difference now: AR's killer trick involves spatial awareness of the world, something that early VR lacked. That spatial camera computer vision magic would play into a lot more areas of tech, including face scanning, autonomous vehicles and drones, and security cameras.


The Magic Leap, in 2018.

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2018: Looking for a Magic Leap

Seven years after the book was published, Spielberg's Ready Player One movie adaptation arrived in a different world now filled with VR headsets and aspiring smart glasses, a world in which Oculus' Palmer Luckey had been ousted from Facebook, and now was trying to build border surveillance tech. Facebook's Oculus Go and Lenovo's Google Daydream-compatible Mirage Solo cut the cord from phones completely, becoming self-contained standalone headsets. Though more self-sufficient, smaller and more affordable, most people still didn't see a need to buy these little goggles, and they weren't as cool as the haptic-vest VR rigs depicted in Ready Player One's vision of 2045 Columbus, Ohio.

Could anything do better? When would this crazy future arrive for real? Magic Leap's mysterious mixed reality headset made grand promises, and the steampunk Goggle design felt like it descended from another planet. Could this highly valued startup really deliver something so miraculous that everything I'd tried previously would be rendered obsolete?

In the summer of 2018, I finally got to visit Magic Leap's headquarters and try the company's first headset firsthand. But while it was better than Microsoft's HoloLens, it wasn't all that different. As a piece of hardware, it felt like a letdown. But as a vision, it can be fascinating. Some apps show things to me, and to colleagues, that border on the immersive experiments I've had at art festivals like Tribeca. I waved my hands in the air and saw particles of light dance to a Sigur Ros soundtrack. I sat in a room with Magic Leap's "digital human," Mica, and silently interacted with her as she sat across from me at a table. At times, it felt like art. At times, it felt like a prototype that simply wasn't ready.


The Oculus Quest, in 2019.

Sarah Tew/CNET

2019: The strange future unfolds

I've beta tested things on my face for a decade, and I've never seen a more exciting year than 2019. Microsoft's enterprise-focused HoloLens 2 felt like a comfortable hat but tracked my hands and eyes in augmented 3D worlds. Facebook's $400 Oculus Quest was the first ever VR headset I gave a CNET Editors' Choice award. It's that good, and yet it's all self-contained -- no computer, no phone, no wires -- and surprisingly immersive. It's allowed me to create bubbled-off worlds in my living room, and dabble in immersive experimental theater-games that hint at where artists and game developers are heading next.

Nobody's nailed smart glasses yet, though many companies have tried (Snap Spectacles, North Focals, Vuzix Blade). Epson's phone-connected Moverio glasses, as ugly as they look, show a future in which glasses and goggles are simply phone accessories. Qualcomm's plans for 5G VR and smart glasses in 2020 show there's a lot more to come.

I've seen immersive theater in VR, and amazing Star Wars experiences. I've wandered in full-room Disney recreations of theme park rides and used my eyes to control things. I've seen glimpses of stunning retina-display VR headsets and used new controls to feel like I'm reaching out and touching new worlds. Nintendo even had a clever VR kit made of cardboard

Some people think VR is dead, and AR's a gimmick. But really, everything's just moving fast, and these are the days before a time when the core technology, headsets or not, will be ubiquitous. I've never seen a year like 2019, where so many companies are promising even grander visions just around the corner. Apple, Microsoft, Facebook, Google, Sony PlayStation, Snap, Qualcomm: those are just a few. It's coming from nearly every direction, now. I don't see how that momentum will stop, and why should it? VR and AR aren't replacements to reality. They're extra layers.

VR and AR move fast: Phone-based VR goggles like the Gear VR and Daydream are already dead, but a new future is sprouting up fast underneath, promising a connected infrastructure for an AR/VR future. 5G plans are leaning on it. That ultraconnected landscape may not need you to be wearing a headset at all... and yeah, most people I know still haven't even tried VR or AR goggles or glasses. But the technologies are already used to train athletes and astronauts, to help relieve pain in hospitals, to help the blind see, to create art, to make movies, to design products before they even exist. Smart glasses may not arrive in a way you might be wearing until the middle part of the next decade. But remember when we wondered if anyone would ever wear a smartwatch or a weird pair of earbuds?

We're already in an augmented and virtual future. It just, as they say, isn't fully distributed yet.

CNET's best tech products of 2019

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