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Will 2016 be the year that VR at last becomes, erm, a reality?


via Flickr © Phillie Casablanca (CC BY 2.0)

  • CES Las Vegas will be launchpad for new virtual reality games and films.
  • Other immersive applications and services expected to follow.
  • Augmented Reality (where digital objects appear in a users' view of the real world) set soon to revolutionise retail shopping and travel industry experience,
  • Concerns remain about the potential physiological and psychological effects of exposure to too much immersive VR

Today, (January 6) the annual extravaganza that is CES (the Consumer Electronics Show) begins in Las Vegas, Nevada. Over the course of the next four days, tens upon tens of thousands of visitors will be bombarded with examples and demonstrations of the latest developments in technologies and their applications in areas as diverse as automotives and in-vehicle user-interfaces, the Internet of Things, smart TVs, smart homes, wearables, "rideables" (e.g.hoverboards, electric skateboards, scooters and bikes), cameras, laptops, smartphones, tablets, drones and last, but by no means least, virtual and augmented reality.

For years past the hype has had it that virtual reality (VR) is quivering on a hair-trigger primed and ready to explode into an array of mind-boggling consumer products. That didn't happen. Instead, in 2015, the technology and almost all VR products and applications reached a low-level plateau and then simply stayed where they were as the industry entered a period of self-imposed stasis.

However, marcoms departments, PR and spin-doctor types together with associated hype merchants are now pushing the idea that VR will become mainstream in 2016, and that CES will be the springboard from which it will propel itself deep into retail domestic waters. And maybe it will: there's no denying that there'a a lot of emphasis on VR at CES 2016.

Journalists are often privileged to see the latest developments in different high-tech sectors long before the general public actually know they are underway at all, never mind about to be released commercially - and so it has been with VR.

Collectively and individually the members of the editorial team at TelecomTV have, over the past several years, been been privy to demos of a variety of VR and augmented reality equipment, headsets and applications. Some have been little more than sketchy, two-dimensional, prototype 'works-in-progress' while others have been impressive, fully-developed, 360 degree, pre-production games and immersive applications that truly are amazing (and often vertigo-and barf-inducing as well).

Overall though, progress to 'real' VR has been slower than we were all led to believe it would be, not least because proper VR is hard to do and R&D is very costly. But now, at CES and in the weeks and months to follow, we are at last expecting a slew of headset product announcements from the likes of Sony, Oculus and HTC as the first commercially available products are launched, most of which are expected to be VR games and films.

To be successful VR must become ubiquitous and not a niche market like 3D TV

Now the manufacturers and content providers will have to prove that VR is not a gimmicky niche market (as 3D TV seems to be) but a universally applicable technology that can become globally ubiquitous. That means the hardware and software will have to be truly attractive and compelling because VR won't be cheap domestic toy - although Google's 'Cardboard' VR headset, which, basically, is a device wherein a user slots a smartphone into sort of mask to experience a pretty basic sort of virtual reality, does at least have the virtue of being inexpensive (it costs just US$20) and may well spur-on users to graduate to rather more sophisticated, dedicated VR devices and content.

There's a lot at stake because, if VR is accepted by the buying public, its use is likely to spread quite quickly as businesses latch-on to its possibilities. It is already being mooted that estate agents/realtors will use VR to provide highly-detailed virtual tours of properties while architects and designers will show customers exactly what they are going to get via an immersive VR experience.

Meanwhile, augmented reality (where digital objects are inserted and displayed in a users' view of the real world) is expected to become an integral part of the retail shopping and travel industries within the next couple of years.

And in amidst the welter of hype it is worth remembering just how new the moderately inexpensive VR headset market actually is. It was only in 2011 that the then 18-year-old Palmer Luckey, working the the garage of his parent's house on Long Beach, California, built a device from cheap and easily available components.

In 2014, Facebook bought his company, Oculus VR, for $2 billion. It was that deal that set a focus on the potential of virtual reality and led to further investment in the technology by many other interested parties. Indeed, according to the research house CB Insights, in the year and a half following Facebook's acquisition of Oculus the nascent VR sector was boosted by 91 investments valued at $1.1 billion. By comparison, over the 18 months prior to the Oculus deal, there were just 50 investments in VR worth some $316 million.

Headache pills and barf bags at the ready?

However, despite all the interest and hype, VR (and to some extent AR) will have some high hurdles to clear if the technology is to become commonplace. There's the hardware and its cost, the ancillary equipment (high-power PCs, servers etc.) necessary to help provide the 'immersive' VR experience, there's the paucity of content and, last but by no means least, there's the problem of the physiological and even psychological effects that VR can, and will, have on people.

Visceral VR experiences can leave users disoriented, both in body and in mind and psychologists have been warning  about this for some time. There is a growing body of empirical evidence that shows VR can induce nausea, eyestrain, muscle spasms and severe headaches. Indeed, all VR headset makers that they should not be used by children under the age of twelve, but there's no way any such recommendation could ever be enforced or policed. Meanwhile Oculus and Samsung forcefully recommend that users should take a ten-minute break from the VR world every half an hour. They also urge users not to operate machinery, drive a vehicle or ride either a motor- or push-bike for half an hour after a VR session.

There's a reason for that. Headset makers don't want to find themselves facing a battery of lawsuits occasioned as a result of physiological or behavioural changes brought about by VR. So potentially damaging could such changes be (just think about someone running amok in the High Street with a machete after spending hours and days in a VR game where killing people is not only sanctioned but is the entire point of the exercise) that the industry is talking about constituting an ethics committee to govern the entire industry!

And then, of course, there's the little mater of standards and regulation (or the lack thereof). Just look at the case of digital radio. It was launched with no real regard to interoperability or standards and has largely failed as a result, now being terminally bogged-down in a morass of competing proprietary systems. The same could easily happen to VR - unless the industry gets together right now to agree on a global standards regime.

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