It's a common question, particularly for folks like me who are old enough to remember the first wave of virtual reality machines and how quickly they went from fad to bad. Some smart person put this question to Palmer Luckey, one of the co-founders of Oculus Rift, and he had to interesting things to say in response.
The answer? Well mostly technology really. Virtual reality in the 90s was an idea that was ahead of the technology in a very big way. Motion tracking wasn't sophisticated enough, the headsets themselves were ludicrously expensive to research and produce, meaning that mass market penetration was next to impossible.
But another issue, says Luckey, is the power of PCs themselves.
"The biggest part: no matter how good the VR hardware was at the time, the computing power has never really been there," he explained. "Today, the average person’s PC, or even a $400 console can render… not a photorealistic environment, but a pretty good looking 3d environment. If you look at any of those old systems back then, they weren’t anything near photorealism. There were cool things you could do — you could render a wireframe, at high framerates, in 3d.. but it wasn’t anything consumers would latch on to."
Personally, it feels like the time is actually right for virtual reality. There are too many things working in its favour. Valve's support, affordability, the fact Sony appears to be investing in it. The next few years are going to be interesting.