If you believe the hype, then Virtual Reality seems perfectly placed to become the next massive consumer technology, its applications seemingly endless. But what are the chances that this noise will translate into a real-world reality? On the one hand, there is a tsunami of pre-production hype but there are also many critics who warn that it is a bubble waiting to burst. So, what makes VR a medium with potential and why should consumers, brands, content producers, and artists take a chance on its future?
A lot of very powerful players are betting that virtual reality will indeed become the next game-changer, and that augmented reality will follow not far behind. But can we be certain? Smartwatches were going to be the next great thing, but, until now at least, they haven’t lived up to their pre-release hype.
So just how big a market could there be? We’ve seen predictions on 2020 VR/AR sales vary from $162 billion (IDC report) to $120 billion (Digi-Capital) but never less than a more conservative $40 billion (SuperData).
THE PROMISE OF VIRTUAL
The reason that there is so much optimism around this space is that VR will bring that missing ingredient that could make social networking more real – The term is “immersiveness”. Imagine that you’ll be able to experience your avatar chatting with your friends over a virtual beer and joke, and you’ll be able to feel and see their movements.
VR has the promise of making you feel present in another place, another time, or to have a perspective that you couldn’t otherwise have. This explains why a company like Facebook, interested in telepresence, has invested so heavily in it. Learning how to manage the manipulating of presence is a wholly new creative challenge, so the jury is still out on who will do it best. VR requires a lot from its audience, demanding users be especially focused and immersed to enjoy the best experiences. Because VR requires users to mindfully engage, VR experiences are usually particularly memorable and that is worth a lot of money to a lot of sectors.
Anticipation is high. A recent survey (Consumer Media) of 3,000 Americans concluded that while people think that VR/AR is still several years away, more than 80% thought that VR was “exciting” and that within five years, 25% would likely have a VR device. Further reading seems to indicate that there is a near-consensus that the real market is set to materialize within three to five years.
THE VR PLAYERS
While the future is anyone’s guess, here’s a sample of the players who have so far dared to put some real money behind the technology:
- HIGHER END
- MICROSOFT: The HoloLens Developer Edition. (Costs about $3,000).
- FACEBOOK: The Oculus Rift. (Will cost about $600).
- HTC: The Vive. (Will cost about $800).
- LG: The 360 VR headset (Due for release in less than 12 months)
- SONY: PlayStation VR [for PlayStation 4 owners]
- LOWER END
- SAMSUNG: The Gear VR. (Costs about $100 but free with a Samsung Galaxy S7/S7 Edge)
- GOOGLE: Google Cardboard. (An entry level device and millions have been downloaded from the Google Play Store).
WHAT ARE THE CHALLENGES
There are still many challenges ahead. We’ve chosen to focus on just four of them.
The public is not yet completely sure what VR/AR would be used for. Gaming, watching live sports or travel applications could be low-hanging early opportunities. Certainly, while Core gamers aren’t a large audience, they’re passionate about new technology. They are much more likely to pay for premium devices like an Oculus Rift.
- HARDWARE ISSUES
While there’s been media chatter talking up the potential of virtual reality headsets for several years, with people raving about successful demos, no real consumer-grade virtual reality headset has yet hit the market.
The problem is that the majority of current PCs (and every Apple Mac) do not yet have the technical capacity to run the required graphics. Even Microsoft’s HoloLens is still some way from being made available to the public. The Hololens, the Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive, need to be attached to computers that run the software and require a lot of compute power. On the other hand, mobile virtual reality headsets, while giving freedom of movement, provide a duller experience as they just don’t have enough processing power.
- THE COST IS STILL TO HIGH
According to Horizon, only 25% of people would pay more than $250 for a virtual reality device especially while the technology has yet to prove its worth. So for the moment it is the lower end options (like the Samsung Gear VR and Google Cardboard) that are more attractive options. Both of these options use smartphones stuffed into headsets that approximate but does not quite replicate the higher-end virtual reality experience.
No surprise then that SuperData predicts that most of the 16.8 million mobile VR units that will be sold in 2016 will be at the cheaper end of the spectrum.
- VR IS ONLY IN ITS CREATIVE INFANCY
While Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Sony and others have made significant investments in VR and placed it on centre-stage on their company roadmaps, VR is still only in its creative infancy. While there is some remarkable content there just isn’t enough of it (One commentator wrote that “You could probably watch the majority of the best work in a weekend”). Even VR content creators are really just in the early stages of understanding how the medium works and haven’t yet produced any “blockbuster” piece.
STEPPING INTO THE FUTURE
True believers expect that much of human interaction will soon move to the digital sphere and that shopping, healthcare, product design, our interactions with our friends and even our travel ambitions will all be seen through the lens of virtual reality. In such a different world not everyone will come away a winner. There are dire predictions for the high-street shops around the world who will be forced to adapt or close their doors.
Let’s look at some of the ways the technology might gain traction.
A 2015 report (Lancet Commission on Global Surgery) revealed that about five billion people worldwide didn’t have access to safe surgery and that there was a need to train some two million surgeons, anaesthetists, and obstetricians over the next 15 years. VR might offer the solution to allow trainees to witness surgery on their smartphones enabling thousands of international medical students to be trained from world-class centres across continents.
Several start-ups are building the workstations of the future – Software that puts everything one would normally do on a computer into a VR environment. For example, Envelop VR has a platform that can run any Windows application (Microsoft Office, Spotify, Chrome etc.) all inside VR. The user wears a headset and enters a virtual world where web browsers and spreadsheets appear as if suspended in the air so that one can literally feel where everything is. A camera points to a keyboard projecting a video feed of hands typing into the display.
You just look to the left to see an Excel window (with 3D visualization) or choose to look to the right to see your e-mails.
Ikea has been exploring VR to improve the customer experience. Together with Allegorithmic, they have created the Ikea VR Experience.
The app offers a virtual kitchen experience, allowing customers to test different finishes and to chop and change cabinets and drawers with a click. Additionally, it offers the ability for users to shrink themselves to the size of a 100cm child or a 200cm adult to assess the kitchen for hidden dangers.
Gabo Arora is a VR hero working for the UN. The idea is to harness the power of VR to inspire the uninterested and uninvolved through VR immersion. They want the world to witness the effects of climate change on the world’s rivers and forests, the suffering of countries hit by Ebola and feel refugee crises up close and personal. They want to be prepared so that when VR goes mainstream they will have their content ready for viewing, hoping to catch the early adopters and “imprint young people with something before the guns and games are all they have.”
The initial data shows that one in six people who watched these VR films donated at double the usual rate. It also increased the rate of people who signed up to donate in the future or on a regular basis. Perhaps this longer lasting impact is due to an emphasis on “empathy and shared experiences” that a VR experience provides.
For video journalists, VR technology has been talked about since the 90s, but only recently has there been more of a push as big companies have made the jump and started embracing the technology. News organizations like The New York Times and The Huffington Post have started looking into it.
Storyhunter, a platform connecting more than 15,000 video professionals with companies in need of their services, saw the opportunity and recently decided to offer VR and 360° services on their website to companies and clients. In their view, “It’s the most powerful medium that’s ever existed for storytelling. The immersive nature of it is something that’s going to lead to some amazing empathy from audiences.”
In the future, people who aren’t able to travel to exotic destinations for a vacation will be able to escape to virtual destinations. Expedia’s view of the future is that by using virtual and augmented reality, people won’t ever need to leave home to explore some of the world’s wonders. VR /AR could also be used in a “try before you buy” vacation scenario.
Could VR also be harnessed as the answer to long-distance love affairs? Some futurists have predicted, “We will spend considerable time in virtual and augmented realities allowing us to visit with each other even if hundreds of miles apart. We’ll even be able to touch each other.”
And that my dear friends is enough food for thought for one day…