It has had many stops and starts over the years, with failed products shelved as not ready for prime-time. But with several companies preparing headsets for commercial use, virtual reality looks like it might soon, finally, have its consumer breakout.
Much of the hype can be attributed to Oculus VR, the crowdfunded darling that showed off its prototype at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas two years ago to rapturous reviews.
But like many a Kickstarter success, getting a real product to consumer’s hands is a different story, and Oculus seems to realize that for VR to be a real hit, it needs to be a smooth experience, and so is taking its time.
And so competitors have jumped into the market. In March, Sony revealed Project Morpheus, its VR headset. That same month Facebook announced it was buying Oculus VR for $2 billion (U.S.). Samsung has recently launched its Gear VR in the U.S., with Bloomberg reporting that 21st Century Fox showed an immersive clip using the film Wild using the system at this year’s CES. Google bought VR company Magic Leap in September.
Beyond the big players, three GTA companies are coming up with their own takes. Metatecture used crowdfunding for its AirVR, which basically straps an iPhone or iPad to its headset. Cordon Media is crowdfunding Pinc, another iPhone VR case. Then there is Markham-based Sulon, which looks to be working on a more sophisticated VR headset solution called the Cortex.
“In a couple of years from now, we are going to see virtual reality changing the entire gaming experience,” Shawn Layden, chief executive of Sony Computer Entertainment America, recently told the Financial Times. “We have to concentrate on delivering this VR experience in a meaningful and attractive way in the gaming world first.”
The consumer virtual reality market is expected to grow to $5.2 billion worldwide, according to Kzero, a U.K.-based analyst firm, and gaming and entertainment is going to be its beachhead.
This year “is going to be an even bigger year for VR. There are two sides of this, the hardware side and the software side. The hardware has been where the biggest innovation has come, like affordability, the field of view, the processing power. The hardware side is where most of the work has been done that is going to give it a mass-market appeal,” says Neil Schneider, head of the Immersive Technology Alliance, an industry organization featuring more than 40 companies.
“On the software side, what’s happening is the whole industry is going through this learning curve, and they are finally getting their hands on the devices and seeing what works.”
One of the concerns with VR is that poorly calibrated experiences can leave people disoriented or ill, and with such a new technology, developers are slow to create good experiences.
“Let’s just say that there 10 different solutions on the market, and one has a poor software experience,” says Schneider. “It reflects poorly on all of them. So you can see the companies taking care.”
While entertainment is clearly an area VR could prove disruptive, it is certainly not the only place it will be used. Marriot Hotels has been demonstrating Oculus Rift headsets in its hotels, taking guests on virtual trips to Hawaii or London. One local real estate developer is working on a solution that gives prospective buyers the opportunity to tour condos long before they are built.
Cordon Media’s Milan Bain believes that VR could be part of the next generation of e-commerce. One of the innovations for its product, Pinc, are rings with sensors that users wear on their fingers, allowing people to better interact with the virtual space with their hands.
“What we’re trying to capitalize on is what we think is the next wave for VR, and that’s commerce and retail,” says Bain.