The week of January 3, 2016

Why virtual reality is (still) the next big thing

By Selena Larson

In the small Belgian city of Bruges, where centuries-old canals cut through cobblestone streets upon which tourists and cyclists wander, virtual reality found a home in the Historium Brugge. Towering over the town square, the Historium Brugge is an interactive historical attraction that takes visitors on a virtual journey through the streets of Bruges in the 15th century.

The Historium uses two different types of virtual reality experiences—a VR lab within the Historium that includes an immersive seven-minute movie with added physical interaction, including warmer temperatures, “buttkickers,” and other moving parts; and the VR City Tour, an application that works with Google Cardboard to guide users through the city and show what it looked like in 1435.

“Seeing a new technology in one of the world’s best-kept medieval cities works,” says Christophe Roose, general manager at the Historium Brugge, via email. “Bruges is not a boring open-air museum. It’s a vivid city and using new technology adds to that feeling that there is more than just old buildings.

“But I must say, we have been working on our VR project [for] more than one year, but for most of the people, it is still something very unknown.”

Virtual and augmented reality (VR and AR, respectively) has made its way to the oldest parts of Europe, fashion weeks across the world, and into NASA’s research facilities, but despite its growing high-profile popularity, mainstream adoption has been relatively slow.

Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, says that virtual reality platforms will take a long time to develop. “We’ve said that VR and AR could be the next big computing platform, but to put that in perspective, the first smartphones came out in 2003,” he said on the company’s third-quarter conference call in November. “In that first year, Blackberry and Palm Treo both sold around only a few hundreds of thousands of units. And that’s how we think about [VR].”

Expensive headsets are cost-prohibitive for casual users who just want to try out the technology, and there are few devices available even for those who can afford them.

Facebook’s acquisition of Oculus, makers of the crowdfunded VR headset, turned virtual reality from a pipe dream to the Next Big Thing in the eyes of many consumers. Facebook is taking on the futuristic tech, along with its drone programs, to develop new ways of engaging and, as Zuckerberg likes to say, “connecting the world.” The idea that we might visit with friends in virtual sitting rooms as our bodies remain separated by great distances is a somewhat creepy idea. But it’s what many people envision as the future of communication and interaction.

When Zuckerberg announced the acquisition, he said: “After games, we’re going to make Oculus a platform for many other experiences. Imagine enjoying a courtside seat at a game, studying in a classroom of students and teachers all over the world or consulting with a doctor face-to-face—just by putting on goggles in your home.”

“We’ve said that VR and AR could be the next big computing platform, but to put that in perspective, the first smartphones came out in 2003.”

There are few options for high-quality virtual and augmented systems. The Oculus Rift won’t be available until the first quarter of this year. The Oculus-powered Samsung Gear VR is available now for $99, but it requires one of Samsung’s Galaxy smartphones to operate. Sony’s PlayStation VR and the HTC Vive don’t launch until later this year, and Microsoft’s HoloLens AR headset doesn’t have a release date. A handful of other consumer headsets ranging in price from $150 to $699 offer similar immersive features, but for early development models, the price tags are steep.

Google Cardboard is the most affordable VR product on the market. Cardboard headsets start at $20 and can work with almost any smartphone. The foldable, do-it-yourself viewers are great introductions to VR’s capabilities, but they don’t represent the full potential of the technology.

“It does give people a taste, but it might also give people the wrong impression as to what is really possible, and people might not realize how completely different and how much more immersive a real, proper setup like an Oculus or a Vive could be,” says Ebbe Altberg, CEO of Linden Lab, creators of Second Life. “Especially if you think that VR is looking at a 360-[degree] photo through Cardboard, then I would say you have no idea what proper VR could be.”

Cardboard might not be the ultimate VR experience, but it’s certainly the most popular. This year, documentary producers created films for viewing in Cardboard; apps like those from the Historium and Google’s Explorer program took visitors on virtual field trips; and the New York Times distributed VR headsets to its entire newspaper subscriber base to promote its VR film that tells the story of children displaced by war.

The success of Cardboard among casual consumers stands in stark contrast to Google’s previous attempt at AR hardware—Google Glass, Google’s expensive face computer that sat squarely in the eye of the viewer, was widely considered to be a failure, and Google shut down the Explorer program earlier this year. However, Google’s not giving up on the tech. New FCC filings reveal a redesigned Glass, reportedly geared toward enterprise, not consumer, use.

Google’s in-house developments are driving interest in virtual reality by distributing cheap, accessible devices to experiment with, but its investment arm is also helping to push development in hardware and software forward. Google Ventures is among the most active investors in AR and VR since 2012, according to the venture capital database CB Insights. It’s invested in companies like the secretive augmented reality startup Magic Leap and virtual reality development company Jaunt.

Funding for virtual and augmented reality companies is on the rise. In the first three quarters of 2015, companies raised $408 million in investment capital, compared to just $145 million during the same time in 2014, CB Insights reports. Some of the most well-funded companies in the space you might have never even heard of: Magic Leap has raised the most with $592 million, but others, including Movidius, Matterport, and Blippar, are well-funded yet under-the-radar startups working on the hardware and software to power VR and AR experiences.

Rish Mitra, founder and CEO of Blippar, predicts that these technologies will reach the cusp of the mainstream in 2016. VR adoption will be driven by console and game makers putting money into high-end hardware, while Cardboard drives the groundswell of awareness in mainstream consumers.

Price is currently still a barrier for virtual reality, so consumers might first begin to adopt augmented technologies that can be used with the smartphones and wearables already on the market. I tested out Blippar’s AR tech at the 2015 SXSW conference; the visual search engine accurately recognized everything tested, including the breed of a puppy at the demonstration.

“Currently it’s simply too difficult [to] develop fresh, new content—meaning games, yes, but also apps and other features—for the VR market.”

“The real challenge for AR and VR companies alike is to increase the content marketplace; it’s the software players, not hardware makers, who will be the ones to really drive mass consumer adoption,” Mitra said in an email to the Kernel. “Currently it’s simply too difficult [to] develop fresh, new content—meaning games, yes, but also apps and other features—for the VR market. One other issue which will come into play with both are requirements for connectivity. On the connectivity front, we’re moving towards more widespread access to the Internet and decent Wi-Fi speeds, but there is still a long way to go.”

Altberg says that virtual interactive social experiences are going to be commonplace for everything we do in the future. Right now, however, it’s extremely difficult for people to create immersive, interactive 3D spaces.

To address the software development impediments stalling virtual reality progress, Linden Lab is working on something called Project Sansar, a platform that will provide people with less sophisticated skill-sets with the tools they need to build experiences for virtual reality. Similarly, he said, to what WordPress did for Web development, Project Sansar will provide tools for your average VR consumer to develop their own VR projects.

“VR is not necessarily an entirely new medium,” Altberg said in an interview. “It’s a new way to experience that medium.”

Linden Lab has been working on interactive 3D spaces for 15 years; people using Second Life have created their own content for this online reality for 12 years. Immersive virtual reality will add another layer to the already interactive spaces, providing people with more immersive ways to get involved in their online worlds.

Modeling, scripting, and 3D rendering are the skills developers will need to create immersive environments, and with Project Sansar, tools to implement these skills in VR development will be made more readily available.

Excitement around VR is growing, but mainstream adoption likely won’t happen in the immediate future, Altberg says.

“It’s going to take multiple years, it’s going to grow pretty quick, but I wouldn’t expect a huge addressable market for several years,” he said. “It’s so freaking powerful that the world is going to do whatever it can to get there as fast as it can.”

Gaming and entertainment are the obvious uses for virtual reality, as much of what’s already on the market are apps for gaming, video, and the like, but these technologies will also impact day-to-day experiences. In some cases, 3D socializing is already a daily activity. Octogenarian Fran Swenson immersed herself in Second Life when Parkinson’s disease and macular degeneration made it impossible for her to walk. Swenson meets with other Parkinson’s patients in a simulated environment, and they developed a community within Second Life to experience activities impossible to do in the real world and to participate in something of a support group online.

“It’s so freaking powerful that the world is going to do whatever it can to get there as fast as it can.”

For Altberg, Swenson’s experience is just one of the many uses that will be enhanced by VR and AR, beyond entertainment. Other opportunities include immersive learning in university classrooms, medical training and simulated triaging, meetings and conference calls, and architectural development. 

“We believe that these kinds of experiences will ultimately impact almost everything we can think of today,” Altberg said. “The way you teach, the way you learn, the way you buy, sell, socialize, play, almost everything will have an impact.”

As excitement surrounding VR and AR becomes more mainstream, so too do the questions increase regarding the impacts it can have on us as humans. Immersing ourselves entirely in virtual spaces can trick our brains into thinking the experience itself is real, not created by software simulating an environment.

The short film Uncanny Valley perfectly encapsulated some of the fears and concerns people have about this relatively new tech. In the futuristic film—shot as a documentary that follows individuals addicted to virtual reality, akin to how people are addicted to drugs—the audience is forced to recognize the potential harm that manipulating the human mind can do to a person if we’re not careful.

Altberg is unconcerned about the potential for danger and the notion of escaping reality. Like any other activity that’s stimulating or enjoyable, people will take VR to an unhealthy level, he said. Virtual and augmented reality will have pros and cons, but like other technologies with negative side effects, for instance, loud headphones that can damage the eardrums, such side effects don’t prevent people from using them.

“We’re quite adaptable and we’re squishy and we conform to the environment around us,” Altberg said. “Once you get to that full immersion, which is coming up, your brain does not really distinguish. I have all these memories of virtual reality experiences that to me are memories, just like any real situation would be. We have some things happening in Sansar right now, and I see similar things happening in the real world, and I’m not sure which dimension I’m in.”

A handful of new devices will be available for consumers in 2016, which might be catalysts for greater mainstream adoption of this technology in living rooms around the world. Investors, at least, are counting on VR and AR to change the way we interact with our devices and software.

Visitors to the Historium Brugge may first discover the new technology in centuries-old buildings, but if Zuckerberg, Altberg, and other technologists rhapsodizing about the potential for VR and AR to change the way we interact with things both online and off- are correct, soon people won’t find such tech surprising. They will expect it.

Illustration by J. Longo