The new reality

Sceptics may dismiss VR as another gimmick, but with Facebook paying $2bn for headset maker Oculus Rift and limitless potential applications, techUK operations director Paul Hide thinks it could be the next big thing.

The term ‘virtual reality’ was coined 30 years ago by Jaron Lanier, founder of the Visual Programming Laboratory in San Francisco. They were the first com——pany to sell VR goggles, and with 1987 pricing between $10,000 and $50,000, it is perhaps not surprising that the concept remained niche.

Commercial VR applications have been around since the 1950s, when the first aircraft pilot flight simulators used a realistic virtual environment.

So, if VR is not new, what is driving this current surge of interest and debate and what prompted Facebook to pay a staggering $2 billion dollars for VR headset designers Oculus Rift in 2014 – a company that had been in existence for only two years and had no sales revenue of any significance?

Future potential? This could be the biggest ever sector of digital entertainment. The opportunity to be transported into a location and situation of your choosing, anytime, anywhere. An enhanced state of being achieved simply by donning a set of goggles. Go nowhere, but be placed anywhere. The sort of escapism that many seek through alcohol, drugs or dangerous sports, but without the downsides.

On purchasing Oculus Rift, Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg said: “One day, we believe this kind of immersive, augmented reality will become a part of daily life for billions of people.”

Arthur C Clarke said that “any significantly advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”. Driven by this belief, content developers, chip set designers and device manufacturers are close to perfecting incredibly immersive experiences at mass-market price points that, coupled with the sustained growth of social media, are fuelling a belief that we are on the cusp of a wave of innovation and user engagement.

Gaming has always been a sector well-suited to the placing of the user into a VR experience and has been a primary focus for content and device promotion. It is the much broader applications for VR that have the potential to take this technology into all of our lives. The storytellers of drama, movies, music, news and sports are starting to experiment with VR linked to more everyday mainstream content.

Andy Conroy, controller of BBC R&D, confirms that the BBC sees this as an important technology and has talked about its plans.

“360 video and VR are emerging media the BBC needs to explore. Our motive with these technologies is the same for the others we are researching – how might they improve the BBC’s ability to better inform, educate and entertain?

“The true virtual reality worlds are interactive, in that they can react to some degree to what you do, whether that’s where you look, where you move your hands, or even how fast your heart beats.”

Other studies have concluded that immersive technologies will have a huge cultural impact. Many believe these technologies will create new kinds of media, which, for several years at least, will exist alongside traditional television, rather than significantly eating into its market share.

Mark Harrison, managing director of the Digital Production Partnership (DPP) and author of the Home Truths report, said:  “Although established TV providers already create experience-led content – especially in live programming – such content can also work very well in non-broadcast contexts. We expect to see a significant market emerge for the creation and supply of VR and 360° video experiences in retail, travel, galleries, amusement parks and standalone applications for the home.”

As the breadth of content and experiential options grow, so will the appetite for devices. Less than one per cent of the 1.4 billion PCs in use today have the graphical capability to run VR and Sony will be hoping that many of the 35 million PlayStation 4 console owners will add a VR headset. Google Cardboard may be a low-tech way of bringing the VR experience to the smartphone, but what it does is provide a low-cost entry to the experience. Low priced 360-degree cameras such as the Ricoh Theta provide immersive virtual video production capability to the mass market.

Microsoft expects 80 million VR devices to be sold by 2020 and Digi-Capital has predicted that virtual and augmented reality technologies could be worth a combined $120 billion in this timeframe. 

Our grandchildren will look back at the way we consume content today in bewilderment at how we could have enjoyed such an un-immersive experience on such primitive devices.