The virtual world experience seems to be a technology that over-promises and under-delivers. Despite steadfast opinions from some of the tech industry’s most respected leaders, viewing the world while wearing computers on our faces has been about as popular as ransomware. Yet, there are clear signs that augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) technologies are slowly but surely working their way towards greater adoption as new products come to market and major tech companies retool their services to meet expected demand.

Microsoft adds new virtual features

In a presentation on Wednesday at AWE (Augmented World Expo) in Santa Clara, California, Microsoft’s Lorraine Bardeen (who leads the company’s Windows and HoloLens experiences) described how the software giant’s recent updates to their Paint program were done to make virtual 3D content creation easier. Microsoft will also release new updates in the fall for their Photos app to enable virtual reality features. “I firmly believe that mixed reality computing will be ubiquitous in less than ten years,” said Bardeen.

Mixed reality, which uses a headset to display visuals on a screen and inserts virtual objects in a real physical environment that users can control with their hands, appears to be the direction where many developers are headed.

At the AWE conference this week, there were a number of companies showcasing new tools which could dramatically accelerate the adoption of virtual world content.

PTC gave a live demonstration of a smartphone app that positioned screen graphics and information around an object on stage. “At some levels, this is the next generation of the Web,” said Jim Heppelmann, PTC’s president and CEO.

Discuss this news on Eunomia

“Now it’s just a 3D Web.”

The ecosystem of augmented reality tools is also expanding. A press conference at the conference on Thursday featured a number of companies who were introducing recently designed products to facilitate mixed reality development. Massless, which launched just two days ago, announced a pen device for designers to build and manipulate 3D models while wearing a headset, such as an HTC Vive.

Get ready to watch people drawing eagerly in what appears to be nothing but thin air.

Another startup – Resonai – has created technology for machines to recognize the scanned image of a real physical space, such as your living room, and turn it into a virtual image in seconds. This then becomes a 3D model which can be changed or manipulated in virtual reality.

New Star Trek game characters talk back

On the entertainment front, Ubisoft has just released a new VR-based Star Trek game called "Bridge Crew" in which users interact with the virtual "crew" through voice commands. The beta version will use IBM’s Watson artificial intelligence platform to interact with players using natural language processing.

Despite the progress in virtual world technology, there are still significant hurdles to overcome. Mass adoption of VR continues to be hampered by motion sickness created through the immersive experience (one AWE conference session this week was devoted solely to solving the problem of being “cyber drunk”). If you’re wearing a headset, with images positioned inches away from your eyes, the pixel resolution must be really good. This is stretching the limits of what many developers can create.

And the current cost to get in the virtual world game is steep. Microsoft’s HoloLens head wear is currently only available to businesses or developers for a $3,000-$5,000 price tag. That makes for a very pricey entry into mixed reality.

However, there is one event scheduled for 2018 that could light rocket boosters under the virtual tech industry. The legendary Steven Spielberg is working on a movie adaptation of the Ernest Cline novel "Ready Player One," in which people find escape from an ugly world through virtual reality. The movie is scheduled for release next spring and could help draw new converts to a technology that’s coming together right before our eyes.