The Year of Virtual Reality

If consensus were a reliable predictor of the future, it would be wise to bet all your money on that Virtual Reality will be the killer app of 2016.

Most of the “Top Tech Trends of the Year” lists I’ve seen include VR, usually toward the top. Here we have Jason Hiner in VDNet, a generally good source:

Both Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality are getting ready for war in 2016. Hardware wars are coming. Platform wars are coming. Even a showdown between VR and AR–and which one has the broader destiny beyond gaming–is likely to flare up in 2016. Sony, Microsoft, Oculus/Facebook, and HTC/Steam all have big product launches coming this year. CES 2016 could bring new details from these big vendors, as well as announcements about new ecosystems and content partners. Also, don’t be surprised if you hear about new entrants into the VR/AR space. There’s a reason is that VR and AR could be the next paradigm shift in computing: Their purpose will go far beyond just games. Even the Sony Playstation’s VR product is going to be about more than just games, according to a recent interview from Sony’s Shuhei Yoshida.

T-Mobile’s CEO John Legere reins in the snark and casts a vote for VR as the most important “broader prediction:”

Virtual Reality (VR) & Augmented Reality (AR) will hit a tipping point in 2016. It’s clear VR/AR will be big – already expected to be a nearly $3 billion hardware market in 2020. This year, we were one of the first wireless operators to carry VR gear—and we sold out of the Samsung Gear VR in a matter of days. By holiday season next year, VR/AR gear will be a must-have gift, and the VR arms race will be underway with different providers − from Facebook/Oculus, Microsoft, Sony, Samsung, HTC and maybe even Apple or Alphabet − all lining up their devices and content ecosystems. I think in 2016, we’re going to see some room-based systems that are going to blow your mind! It will be crazy fun stuff!  As a matter of fact, I’ll bet VR/AR sales are close to 5 times as big during next year’s holiday shopping season as they were this year!

I’m also going to make a call that HTC will be a surprise innovator here with VIVE.  They’re in a must-win situation, but they’ve got a lot of talent over there. I can’t wait to see what they deliver!

CNet’s Don Reisinger is on the bandwagon:

Virtual-reality device sales will hit 14 million units worldwide in 2016, providing a strong launch point for the category, according to data released Tuesday from the Topology Research Institute, a division of research firm TrendForce. Even though “few” will be sold this year, the firm expects sales to rise to 18 million units in 2017 and 22 million by the end of 2018. In 2020, sales could reach 38 million units worldwide, said TrendForce.

Virtual reality, or VR, has become a buzzworthy segment of the tech industry as major companies like Facebook-owned Oculus, HTC, Samsung and Sony all dive into the emerging market. Virtual-reality devices, typically headsets, immerse users in three-dimensional worlds, letting them look around and feel as if they’re in another place. Initially, the chief use for virtual reality is expected to be gaming.

BBC’s technology correspondent Rory Cellan-Jones sees medical applications:

But just as Kinect’s technology has found lots of uses beyond games, virtual reality may still prove a ground-breaking technology in many areas of life.

Two London psychologists, Dr Ashley Conway and Dr Vanessa Ruspoli, certainly believe that is the case. They have developed a system that uses Oculus’ Rift headset to treat patients with phobias.

Their company Virtual Exposure Therapy aims to give patients exposure in a virtual world to the thing they fear.

We filmed Helena, who’s always been scared of getting into lifts, being guided into a series of smaller and smaller spaces.

Dr Ruspoli kept on checking her anxiety levels as she entered each lift, and after a while the anxieties dropped.

And the list goes on: Venture Beat, CNBC, Engadget, and USA Today; it’s everywhere.

So now you don’t need to feel bad about not going to CES because I’ve just showed you the theme of the show.

Most of the predictors see VR shaping up as a gaming play with Sony’s PlayStation VR and HTC’s Vive headsets taking the lead, but there are two other ways VR could take hold that would have much farther-reaching implications: medical applications and VR as a means of social interaction.

Gaming will get VR kick-started, but from there it goes to the real world, and as we’ve seen from the IoT bonanza the real world is where the action is. Therapists using VR to treat phobias are importing the real world into the virtual world to re-train the patient, reducing the phobia with systematic de-sensitization, not a new technique but one that gains power through technology.

IEEE Spectrum’s article in VR focuses on social, formulating a vision of conferencing with VR to help create the real face-to-face interaction at a distance:

At its most basic, social virtual reality allows two geographically separated people, in the form of fairly realistic avatars, to communicate as if they were face-to-face. They can make eye contact and can manipulate virtual objects that they both can see. It’s somewhat like telepresence, but VR denizens won’t have to worry about appearing at a business meeting in pajamas. (Their avatars will, no doubt, be impeccably dressed.) And they’ll be a lot less likely than the users of telepresence systems to struggle with frozen images or interrupted calls, because their VR gear needs to send instructions only about how to move the avatars, not the entire image…

As a result, lots of folks are working to make social VR happen. Linden Lab, the San Francisco company behind Second Life, a screen-based simulation with a million active users today, is getting ready to roll out a new platform. Linden’s Project Sansar is a host for user-created virtual experiences and tools to build them that will work with VR headsets, standard computer monitors, and mobile devices. The Sansar world will function much like Second Life, with people leasing space for their virtual creations, which will be rendered in 3-D and at a high frame rate. The French company Beloola is building a similar virtual world designed for social networking.

When we place VR in a social context, we get Augmented Reality (AR), which doesn’t replace with real world with an artificial one but uses technology to improve on our experience of reality. As Philip Rosedale says, augmented reality can do away with travel without losing the cultural learning experience that travel provides, just its high cost:

“If you could put on a VR headset and walk around an Italian street where everyone is talking Italian and interact with other students and teachers in Italian, that is real immersion, and I can do that for you cheap,” says Rosedale.

Not bad at all.

Since I’ve been predicting AR would be the next big killer app for about ten years, I’d like nothing better than for it to go mainstream in 2016, but I’ve learned to be cautious. An explosion of interest in VR gaming this year will pave the way for AR to be the killer app of 2018. By then we’ll have 5G networks in place that can handle the data loads of bi-directional video streams and symmetrical fiber networks to provide the backhaul. We will also have to work out the policy barriers to the deployment of such networks, which now looks like the greatest barrier to overcome.

But I can’t wait. Here’s to augmented reality, the killer app of the 5G revolution. Happy 2018.