It wasn’t too long ago that virtual reality seemed inevitable. The most enthusiastic VR boosters promised it would become an all-conquering technology that would revolutionize everything from entertainment to real estate, from education to health and wellness. And for a couple of years, CES, the annual electronics show held in Las Vegas, overflowed with virtual reality headsets and controllers, and plenty of VR hype.

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That revolution, to put it mildly, hasn’t happened yet. High prices and ease-of-use problems seemed to put virtual reality right back where it was in the 1990s: an exciting technology with some promising consumer products that didn’t quite deliver.

Speaking as someone who has personally spent hundreds of dollars on various pieces of VR hardware over the past two years, I can attest to the fact that even halfway decent headsets represent a significant investment, and even the best gear produces only so-so visuals. And staying tethered to a PC with a series of HDMI and USB cables doesn’t help the illusion of being transported to another world.

But against this backdrop, several VR advances shown at CES could give virtual reality new life. Companies like HTC and Lenovo are taking some of the most significant steps to improve the overall VR experience since the current phase began with the Oculus Rift Kickstarter campaign back in 2012.

This year, companies in the VR-headset business are promising improvements like vastly improved visual fidelity on the high end and improved ease-of-use for less expensive products.

Stay on top of all the tech news with 
CR's guide to CES 2018.

The Future of an Illusion

Take HTC, which produces the Vive headset, one of two VR headsets currently on the market aimed at serious gamers, along with the Oculus Rift. An updated version of the headset called the Vive Pro, expected this spring, nearly doubles the combined resolution (for the two eyes together) to 2800x1600 pixels.

I tried the Vive Pro at HTC's CES booth and found the increased resolution really makes a difference, letting me see details in VR environments that previously would have gone unnoticed, details that helped reinforce the feeling of, say, driving around a racetrack in a sports car or sitting courtside while watching an NBA game.

“The Achilles' heel of VR in the early days has been resolution,” says Danny Keens, head of content at NextVR, a company that films sports, including NBA basketball and International Champions Cup soccer, for VR platforms. “The promise of virtual reality is that you will be teleported somewhere—this concept we in the industry call ‘presence.’ If we’re telling people that they’re going to feel immersed, then we have to find a way to make you feel like you’re right there.”

Ultimately, the enhanced visual fidelity could mean “it won’t feel like you’re looking at a screen but actually sitting at a game,” Keens says. 

Less Money, Fewer Wires

There’s no pricing yet for the Vive Pro, but it’s bound to be expensive—the existing version is $600. For consumers uninterested in shelling out that kind of money to experience “presence,” companies including Lenovo and Oculus VR have important news of their own.

Working with Google, Lenovo announced at CES a midrange VR headset called the Mirage Solo that's expected to be released in the second quarter of this year. No price has been announced, but the company indicated it would cost less than $400. Besides the reasonable price (by VR standards), the Mirage Solo could also be attractive to consumers because it’s entirely self-contained. A built-in Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 processor means there’s no need to plug the headset into a PC or slide your smartphone into a visor.

Along with better displays, that’s the other promising VR trend that’s emerged at CES this year: Hardware makers are trying to minimize the inconveniences that stand between consumers and believable virtual worlds.

Oculus is also trying to make VR more approachable with the coming Oculus Go. Its attractive price—starting at $199—could entice consumers who aren’t comfortable shelling out as much as it costs to buy a laptop. And, like the Mirage Solo, this is a self-contained VR headset that does away with the need for a PC, smartphone, or dedicated gaming console. That should be appealing if being corralled by a bunch of wires isn’t your idea of a good time.

“For gamers, these issues [of convenience] might not matter as much, but for others it must be more intuitive,” says Nicola Ranieri, a co-founder of SensoryX, which has developed a pair of gloves to replace the motion-sensing touch controllers found on the Vive and Oculus Rift. During a demo, I found that they accurately translated my hand movements; think trigger pulls at a virtual shooting range.

VR content is become more varied, too, with a strong focus on expanding beyond traditional gaming to areas like health and fitness. “Unless you’re a masochist, who likes to go to the gym?” says Preston Lewis, a co-founder of Black Box, a VR fitness company. “People are literally leveling up their character [playing video games] instead of leveling up their lives.”

Floyd Mayweather, the recently retired boxing champion, was in Las Vegas showing off a coming VR fitness app for the HTC Vive that puts users inside a virtual gym to fight a digital Mayweather. Virtual pugilism burns as much as 300 calories in a 20-minute session, according to Mayweather Boxing + Fitness.

I can't say whether or not I actually burned 300 calories using the app, but I certainly built up a bit of a sweat as I ducked and weaved in a virtual bout against a facsimile of the fighter. (I lost, by the way.)

“Everyone wants to work out,” Mayweather said at a small press conference not far from the arena where he beat Conor McGregor in his last professional fight last August. “Everyone wants to be in shape. If you feel good you look good. If you look good you feel good.”

Maybe even if you’re wearing a VR headset.