It is beyond a shadow of a doubt that virtual and augmented reality are both groundbreaking technologies.
They offer similar – yet distinct – experiences that are deeply immersive, offering new ways for us to work, play, relax and interact with one another that would be almost impossible to achieve with other media platforms such as screens, computers and mobile devices.
Both technologies have come a long way in the last few years, helped hugely by a steady stream of investor funding (around $13bn in value has been invested into VR ventures during this period). Silicon Valley has fully embraced the hype – Google, Facebook, Valve and Intel are active stakeholders in the VR and AR industry and are all putting their money where their mouths are to spearhead development across the sector.
There are now hundreds of companies that specialise in virtual and augmented reality in its various forms, many of them based in the United Kingdom. And yet this has, to date, still not translated into the widespread adoption by consumers and professionals that was predicted by several sector analysts at the start of the year.
Is this a mere bump in the road to VR and AR ubiquity, or it is symptomatic of wider problems that need to be addressed in order to persuade the public of the viability of these technologies? Both have their fair share of critics and sceptics; as such, it’s well worth addressing the common worries that surround VR and AR to see whether they are justified.
Concern #1: will VR be caught up in the next ‘dotcom’ bubble?
The dotcom bubble was, in many ways, a disaster for the nascent digital economy. The over-inflation of stock prices for almost any business with an online presence eventually resulted in a crash that wiped $5 trillion off the total market value of companies in the sector.
Many of these went under or were acquired, undermining public trust in online-based businesses for a number of years afterwards. Many have compared the current situation to the state of the digital economy in the late 1990s and confidently predicted that we’re in a technology bubble about to collapse under its own hype. Others have focused on the perceived weaknesses of the virtual reality market, suggesting that lower-than-expected sales and the expensive equipment needed for high-end VR mean that the market is headed for a significant downward correction in the next twelve months. There is certainly some truth to this: after strong pre-orders and initial sales, both the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift have seen demand decline significantly in the past few months, although neither has seen sales completely flat-line.
Cost is definitely a major factor that is blocking adoption of this technology right now. A gaming console or PC is already a significant investment – throwing £700 to £800 on top of that for a VR headset is simply not affordable for many individuals and families.
“If something’s even $600, it doesn’t matter how good it is, how great of an experience it is — if they just can’t afford it, then it really might as well not exist.”
– Palmer Luckey, the founder of Oculus VR, speaking in 2013
Yet there are signs that virtual reality hardware is in line to quickly become more affordable. The release of the PSVR – which can work with existing PS4 consoles – is a significantly less expensive option than its high-end rivals, while Xbox will follow in a similar vein with support for the Oculus Rift when its VR-ready Project Scorpio console is released next year.
Meanwhile, the new Google Daydream headset only costs £69 and promises a more comfortable mobile-based experience coupled with the increased freedom of control associated with a higher-end device. It’s too soon to say whether the initial positivity surrounding these products will translate into the strong sales figures promised – but both look to be a step in the right direction.
As well as affordability, a restricting factor for what passes for premium quality VR right now is the need for everything to be wired up to a powerful computer or console, simply to deliver as little as 2160 x 1200 pixels in resolution overall. While it seems that this type of set-up will remain inevitable for premium headsets – at least until computers become more powerful – customers may prefer to compromise on screen quality in order to benefit from the convenience of a wireless set-up.
Oculus seems to have recognised this trend: its latest prototype device, named Santa Cruz, takes the exoskeleton of the Oculus Rift and uses ‘inside-out tracking’ to deliver a similar experience without the need for trailing cables. Similarly, HTC has publicly supported a new prototype add-on for the Vive headset that supposedly allows it to function wirelessly and adds less than 2 milliseconds of latency.
Another significant concern is that there we still don’t know what the ‘killer app’ is that will bring VR to the mainstream in the way that mobile phones and laptops became an almost-necessary component of our daily lives. While much of the initial pitch around VR has been to the gaming community, this has yielded mixed results. While there is a lot of consumer interest in the potential of VR, the consensus is that the games released to date aren’t good enough to compete with the quality of PC or console titles that we’ve come to expect.
However, we are now seeing an increasingly diverse set of applications being developed for VR. These range from the obvious – film and TV experiences and experiential installations for live events – to more specialised, professional uses, including property design and real estate marketing, healthcare diagnosis and virtual reality employed as an educational tool.
The evidence suggests that, although VR is certainly not yet at the ‘must-have’ level of the smartphone or the laptop, it is slowly but surely starting to realise its potential as a technology capable of bringing about great change. While it’s possible that VR (and, to a lesser extent, AR) might find itself affected by a bursting tech bubble and the resulting dearth in venture capital investment, it’s difficult to foresee a dot-com-style crash eliminating the quickly-diversifying VR market. Such an event would certainly slow down progress, but the core technology forms a solid platform for there to be substantial gains over the next few years regardless of whether the amount of VR and AR investment remains at current levels.
It’s worth remembering that, despite the severe nature of the dotcom market correction, that bubble was also the incubator that resulted in the eventual emergence and dominance of Amazon, Google and eBay. Even if the VR gaming market fails to take off in the near future, there are still several other areas where both VR and AR have the potential to make waves.
Concern #2: There isn’t have enough VR (or AR) content
“Compelling content will drive demand. Demand will drive technology. Technology will drive the masses. Masses will expand the markets. Make the content commercially viable and the chain will follow.”
Unnamed respondent, 2016 augmented and virtual reality survey report (Perkins Coie/Upload)
It cannot be underestimated how important good quality content is to the adoption of a new technology. It’s the main reason why 4K television is poised, yet not quite able, to fully take off in the consumer market. There just simply isn’t enough 4K video content currently available to justify the expenditure for many consumers.
So it is with virtual reality right now: there is not enough content being created, and several of the virtual worlds that are being built right now offer poor quality, shallow experiences that leave users feeling unsatisfied.
Like any technology, VR and AR content is a numbers game that will shift in the favour of both mediums over time, but right now it is a serious limiting factor; market research conducted by Perkins Coie and Upload suggests that an inadequate content offering is the largest challenge that the virtual and augmented reality industries currently face.
In gaming and home entertainment, it is clear that this will be a severely limiting factor, as there needs to be a steady flow of content in order to justify the expenditure that VR and AR entail. This is exactly what IMAX is looking to do, having raised $50 million to create premium virtual reality experiences to be shown in a number of trial IMAX VR centres in the USA, UK, China, Japan and the Middle East. Likewise, several gaming studios are working on VR gaming experiences that either forms part of existing titles or exist as stand-alone narratives. For gaming-focused devices such as the PSVR, this content cannot come quickly enough.
For professional applications, however, the content question is far less problematic. As much of the content that needs to be created needs to be bespoke – an architectural design or a virtual showroom, for example – the relationship between user and creator is much closer, with the content being created tailored to their exact needs.
Currently, professional VR experiences are a premium product that needs to be outsourced, as most companies will not have those with the development experience needed to create them among their employee roster, nor the financial muscle required to hire such people to work in-house. Currently, this means that the majority of this type of content needs to be built by dedicated design studios, although some of these (among them Kei Studios) are developing means for users to create their own VR experiences with minimal need for input from a dedicated development team.
The health of the professional VR sector is robust: not only are the number of VR design studios specialising in content creation on the rise across multiple sectors, it is also the area attracting the most interest from potential investors in virtual and augmented reality. As the hardware improves with better resolution and more immersive 3D audio options, so the benefits of creating presentations and demonstrations for virtual reality will grow further still.
“The use of virtual reality by design professionals is in a nascent stage, but it is quickly becoming recognised as a useful presentation and collaboration tool,” opines Hamza Abbas, business development manager at Kei Studios. “By far and away the key benefit of VR for this type of application is that it ensures that all stakeholders in a project – from the architect and the construction team to the end client – are sold on a unified, coherent vision.”
Concern #3: Virtual reality makes you feel sick
A third, and perhaps more troubling issue is the motion sick elephant careering wildly around the room. Worryingly, several VR experiences continue to suffer from motion parallax issues, inadequate refresh rates and navigation techniques (such as dual-stick navigation) that are legacy leftovers of traditional gaming and cause oculomotor distress. This generates the sensation like motion sickness that leaves some would-be users feeling distinctly green after putting on a VR headset.
Some studios overcome this by devising their own modes of movement and test them thoroughly to ensure queasiness is not an issue (indeed, creating a user-friendly, nausea-free means of navigation comprised a significant part of Kei Studios R&D efforts to date). For users worried that they might feel unwell from certain VR experiences, a new site has launched that rates games in terms of their effect on users’ stomachs, meaning programs can be checked ahead of purchase.
However, there are simply too many companies for whom this is not a significant priority. This leads to negative early impressions from consumers that leave them feeling unwell – hardly the lasting impression a new technology needs to be making at this stage of its development, where it is trying to prove itself as more than simply a niche application.
While there are plenty of useful tips for avoiding motion sickness in VR – including taking frequent breaks, placing a fan nearby and eating or drinking ginger – these are, at best, stop-gap preventions. The real responsibility for resolving the problem of virtual reality sickness lies in two areas: the content developer and the headset manufacturer. For the former, the frame rate of a game and how the user is meant to explore the experience is a crucial factor, while for the manufacturer the accuracy of the headset calibration and the field of vision are two particularly important elements that need to optimised fully ahead of any release.
Concern #4: If it were going to, AR would have already taken off
Many could be forgiven for thinking that augmented reality was little more than a fad. For the near-on 50 million smartphone owners that played Pokémon Go over the summer of 2016, the novelty of augmented reality images overlaid over the real world needs no explanation. But there was little in the way of longevity built into the game, and player numbers have swiftly declined in the months since. With no phone-based AR title claiming anywhere close to the same level of attention since it would be easy to conclude that augmented reality’s time has already come and gone.
That isn’t remotely the case. Even before Pokémon Go, augmented reality had been around in phone-based form for several years, spearheaded by companies such as Blippar and Documobi, which focus on small-form interactive content triggered by scanning real-life objects with a phone’s camera.
The difference between VR and AR is simple: the former is a completely immersive experience, whereas the other overlays digital objects over a physical space, allowing the two to co-exist simultaneously.
Now, however, the development of augmented reality is really beginning to take off. Several companies are developing headset-based platforms for taking augmented (sometimes known as mixed or hybrid) reality one step further.
A couple of companies have established themselves as early leaders in this space. Google was the first with Google Glass, although privacy issues ensured the project was quickly abandoned, at least publicly. In its place, Magic Leap became the early forerunner, although it has so far been far more successful in generating hype around mixed reality than it has been at actually releasing a physical product. More recently, Microsoft has come to the fore with its Hololens prototype, an impressive if somewhat gawky headgear that cements the Redmond company’s return to the summit of the tech world.
There are clear reasons why augmented reality could easily match, if not surpass virtual reality as these headsets become available to consumers and professionals over the next couple of years. Many augmented reality glasses are built to be used untethered (both Magic Leap and Hololens are being developed with this in mind, while another forerunner – Meta AR – still requires cables); combined with the ability to see the environment you’re moving around in, this offers a more mobile, roaming experience than virtual reality, allowing the user more freedom as to how and when they use it.
There is also a much more noticeable business-first approach, particularly with Microsoft Hololens, which is pushing the design and work-focused applications heavily. This stands in contrast to VR headset manufacturers, which place consumer uses – particularly gaming, but also immersive entertainment – front and centre. Instead, Microsoft is working hand-in-glove with the industry at large as it optimises the Hololens augmented reality platform, opening up its product not only to software developers, but also design consultancies and commercial users that want to develop applications specifically for their business needs.
Despite the challenges face by the industry as a whole, investment in VR and AR continues to ramp up. This isn’t merely investors following the Gold Rush – there is visible and concrete progress being made on many of the issues outlined above that should give a shrewd observer confidence that the will is there within the sector to develop products and services that will genuinely benefit both consumer and professional end users. Regardless of which concern people have, it all comes down to high quality content, the availability of which will make or break the virtual and augmented reality experience. As the misquote from Field of Dreams goes – build it, and they will come.