by Shireen Ho

Shots have been fired. Whether you like it or not, it seems Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) are here to stay. Predicted as one of the most disruptive technologies in this decade, analysts forecast that more than 24 million devices will be sold in 2018.

According to industry analyst firm CCS Insight, VR and AR have now reached a tipping point after years of development. It is estimated that more than 12 million VR headsets will be sold in 2017. Although VR and AR are essentially two different types of technologies, the potential is immense for both as each delivers a niche visual experience.

Realities Explained

Virtual Reality Also referred to as immersive reality or artificial reality, VR is a computer simulated environment created in the digital realm. Sometimes it simulates a physical place in the real world or an imagined world that allows the user to interact with it. VR technology can artificially create sensory experience such as sight, touch, sound, and smell. There are two forms of VR: semi-immersive and fully immersive. The first is often constructed using projection technology in an enclosed room, while the latter uses a VR headset to ‘immerse’ the user in the virtual world via sight.

Augmented Reality Also referred to as mediated reality, AR is a fusion of the real world and the digital world by overlapping visual experience between real-life and digital realm. Open and partly immersive, computer-generated sensory graphics are superimposed onto or integrated with the visuals you see in the physical world, modifying/enhancing one’s view of reality. Smart phones and smart glasses are often used as a medium to overlay data and rendered images onto physical objects and real-life environments.

The Hype of Realities

When Facebook acquired Oculus Rift in 2014, expectations for VR and AR ran high as several technology giants soon followed suit to make huge investments in the area. Some notable firms include Google (for Google Glass); Sony (with Project Morpheus); HTC – who has a partnership with Valve; and Samsung, who had worked with Oculus to produce the company’s first VR Gear for Samsung smartphones.

In the AR realm, Epson launched the Moverio smart glasses at CES 2014, while IT giant Microsoft announced its first holographic computer – the HoloLens – in early 2015, officially marking the beginnings of Age Of Realities.

Two years on, in 2016, we see investments coming to fruition. Starting with Facebook’s first consumer version of Oculus Rift scheduled to ship later this year, Sony also announced that its first VR headset for PlayStation which will be out in the same year too.

Concurrently, Intel has also announced its AR headset plans and Epson also stepped up on its smart glasses development with Moverio BT-300 due to release in late 2016 with several major improvements.

Graphic 2_ARVR-Forecast
Source: Digi-Capital. Augmented/Virtual Reality Report 2016.

    Billion-Dollar Industry

Indisputably, gaming and VR films are top applications for VR. Citing CCS Insight, video, entertainment and user-generated technology are also helping to drive its adoption. But besides the consumer market, what potential does VR has for commercial businesses?

Eugene Goh, Vice President & Head, IT & Mobile of Samsung Electronics Singapore, reasoned that businesses can embrace VR as a cost effective way of developing and delivering a product or service.

“The vivid nature of VR allows business to do away with actual set-ups, allowing their customers to have a remote yet realistic experience without being physically present… The added bonus is how VR can provide an intriguing experience,” said Eugene.

In contrast, AR are quickly gaining traction with various vertical markets such as Logistics, Support, Design, Medicine and Education. As of today, Europe is believed to be the largest test bed of AR, with numerous blue-chip companies across all sectors evaluating its capabilities.

Not Just Games

Ben Wood, CCS Insight’s Chief of Research observed: “…Companies have realised augmented reality can be used to increase productivity and cut costs. Over the next two years we’re going to see the technology move out of trials into full-scale deployments. Companies that embrace augmented reality will gain a competitive advantage.”

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Credit: Epson

While the focus on gaming and entertainment has not changed (gamers rejoice!), it is evident that enterprises and corporations are beginning to see the value of VR and AR to improve their training and work processes.

“(Imagine) a home tour of a show flat instead of a physical setup in real estate, a five-minute tour around the city in the comforts of your hotel room before deciding on your day’s itinerary, catch the latest fashion shows with models walking down the runway, cheer for your favourite team from the soccer pitch, or trying on new outfits in a retail fashion store,” Eugene enthuses.

“The possibilities are limitless.”

Credit: Epson
Credit: Epson

Additionally, a large AR user base would also be a major revenue source for TV/film, enterprise, advertising, and consumer apps. E-commerce businesses such as Amazon and Alibaba will have a new platform to sell to a mass audience.

Content Is Key

VR headsets and smart glasses are cool and all, but ultimately they are just mediums to deliver content in a different way. With Facebook launching 360 video and a series of VR games later this year (most probably to complement its Oculus VR gear launch), content is another key factor to consider to make the VR/AR adoption much more seamless.

“As with any new medium/platform, to make VR grow as an industry, content will play a significant role to determine why would people use VR and how quickly will people pick up VR in the near future,” said Jeff Zhen, Co-Founder of Hiverlabs, a VR content producer based in Singapore.

As VR covers a wide range of genres and applications, from entertainment, to education, training, tourism, property and more, creating content for VR application can be challenging especially if you also take into account that it is only in recent years that the technology has picked up.

“VR is still very new to consumers and developers. As we develop VR content, we have to think about when and how will people access VR content,” explains Jeff.

“The key challenge we feel in making VR content is not only the technical challenges like maintaining a high display framerate, quality of graphics, intuitive user interfaces, etc, but also the actual use case scenario of a specific VR content.”

According to Jeff, there are numerous problems faced by VR companies at this early stage and the industry developers are still exploring how to solve real problems and get effective results with VR. On the AR side, Epson has also been aggressively pushing for more content producers and software developers to create apps for their Moverio smart glasses.

With a robust, informative site dedicated specially for developers and an expert team of email support, the company recognizes that the fastest way to push for adoption will be interesting content.

Just like how Apple’s iPhone burst onto the smartphone scenes in 2007 with a wide array of interesting apps, the rate of VR and AR adoption and acceptance will also depend on how creative and novel the content is and the kind of experience it can bring to its users.

Not A Bed Of Roses

Woman Using a Samsung VR Headset at SXSW. Credit Nan Palmero/Flickr
Woman Using a Samsung VR Headset at SXSW. Credit Nan Palmero/Flickr

However, as exciting as AR/VR might seem, its future is not going to be as rosy and positive if health issues such as simulator sickness is not resolved. Also known as VR sickness, simulator sickness is a type of visually induced motion sickness that occurs when using VR and AR devices for a prolonged period of time.

When the VR devices fails to completely fool our vestibular and proprioceptive systems (the sensory systems responsible for balance, spatial orientation and bodily positions), it causes discrepancies between the motion perceived from the screen and the actual motion of the user’s head and body.

In short, simulator sickness is developed when what our eyes see does not match how our heads move. Symptoms of simulator sickness include dizziness, headache, nausea, vomiting and other discomforts.

Though it is said that simulator sickness decreases with repeated exposure there is still a minority of 3-5 per cent who will never get used to it. On the other hand, privacy issues are also another concern for the industry, with Google Glass raising a lot of questions from privacy advocates.

But on the bright side, some VR developers have already claimed that they have come up with motion sickness-free devices, while AR developers are treading more carefully than ever with their developments.

Coupled with the help of tech enthusiasts and AR/VR fanatics pushing for more adoption, the future of AR/VR may look uncertain at first but it’s definitely heading to where it wants to be.

Now, conducting a virtual meeting using VR technology doesn’t sound like such a far-fetched idea isn’t it?