Useful Applications and 5G Will Help Take VR Out Of Basements, Labs and Exhibition Experiences
VR has been around in some form or another for decades, but its most recent moment in the sun came about five or six years ago. The technology reared its head again and we all got excited that it might be time the full potential of VR was realised.
Fast-forward to 2019 and the fervent interest has waned. Sales figures support a general decline in interest and it feels as though everyone is waiting for that next big breakthrough to happen to give those pushing the technology something to get excited about.
No Use Cases With Mass Appeal Yet
The major stumbling blocks – price, motion sickness, content, cables – all felt easily surmountable and they probably are. Indeed, self-contained VR devices are imminent.
Games are being released constantly, while the likes of PlayStation are still advertising their own devices, which have promise and appeal to the exact audience PlayStation already caters for.
The problem now is, do people care?
“The main issue VR faces is trying to find use cases with true mass appeal”
“VR’s still finding its feet,” Alex Macleod, Global Head of Digital at Fitch, told us. “What a lot of people have selective memory about is that it’s a very old concept that has been recently picked up off the shelf again because screen resolutions, accelerometers, GPUs, etc. have become a lot better and more accessible.
“The main issue VR faces is trying to find use cases with true mass appeal. The technology is getting to a point where it’s acceptable to the public in terms of weight, form factor, immersiveness, responsiveness and so on, but what’s lacking is a reason for a tech enthusiast to evangelise about it to their less enthusiastic colleagues, friends and family beyond gaming, gimmicks and specialist, professional use cases.
“If we’re all going to be living in the Ready Player One age, there’s going to have to be a lot of compelling reasons for the average person to forego hours in the real world and invest them in VR.”
One Possible Breakthrough Lies in 5G
The next step in the evolution of mobile data, 5G will bring with it a host of opportunity in a number of industries, not least VR.
The change will be a gradual one – in the UK, for example, the rollout is set to begin in late 2019 or 2020, though it is possible that widespread coverage won’t be seen until 2022 or later. Whatever the timescale, the VR community is preparing for the next wave of developments made possible by the increased speeds.
“We will see a lot of cloud-powered experiences, which will lower the bar to entry and improve the experience”
Daniel Newman noted in Forbes that Pokémon Go was powered by 4G technology and managed to take the world by storm. It’s important to note its relative simplicity compared with other VR and AR use cases, though, and Newman also expects 5G to be a watershed moment for VR.
Liam Griffin, CEO of Skyworks, told Forbes that 5G will reduce the time taken to download an HD movie to mere seconds. When you consider that 3G would take about a day to perform the same task, the improvements in latency become clear.
5G will provide huge improvements in traffic capacity, bandwidth and connection quality – all elements VR will rely on to get to the next level of usability.
We asked Macleod the kind of impact he saw 5G having on the development of VR.
“Firstly, the amount of wiring will be reduced,'' he said, “This is a big thing, as some of the best VR devices still need reams of cables. With 5G, the GPU rendering can be done remotely. We will see a lot of cloud-powered experiences, which will lower the bar to entry and improve the experience.
“Secondly, it will help VR become more social and take it out of basements, labs and exhibition experiences. Being able to throw data around, untethered at the speed and latency 5G promises could be a game-changer, but the timeline on true 5G getting out of a few pockets of the population is a bit of a moving target too.”
More Use Cases: Training, Education, Manufacturing
The majority of VR predictions tend to focus on entertainment, but there are practical applications across a number of industries that it’s easy to see having a more immediate meaningful impact.
The most obvious is employee training
Workforce training can be dangerous, in the cases of construction work or the military, for example. It can also be expensive, particularly if complex training scenarios are required to get each employee up to speed.
VR offers a solution to both: employees can be put into immersive, specific situations risk-free, all for the price of some VR hardware and a bespoke software package. Another benefit is the engagement boost inherent in using VR when compared to presentations or demonstrations.
Education is similarly awash with opportunities for VR
Engaging young minds is something educators have struggled with for millennia and any tool that offers a visually stimulating way of presenting information is valuable. Picture, then, the ability to put a student in the middle of a historic event or landmark without leaving the classroom.
VR could really bring fields of study such as history and geography to life, while there are a number of design programs that could help develop creative skills. Teachers would likely point out the budget restrictions that make VR in the classroom a fantasy at present, but just as computers made their way into schools to supplement learning, VR could be introduced incrementally.
Manufacturing, too, is another huge potential use case
Ultimately streamlining the entire product design process, virtual manufacturing (VM) means teams can view designs in a 360° to-scale setting. This way, improvements can be made to the design before any prototype is created, saving time and money.
The more sophisticated the VM program, the more a product can be tested and amended before it goes to production. Products of any size can be tested in a safe environment, which is why sectors such as architecture and automotive are particularly interested.
VR Needs Time to Develop
“It’s going to be a slow burn,” Macleod says.
“I first got an iPhone in 2008, the Appstore had just launched and was pretty bare, mostly gimmicks and specialist, insanely priced apps – even TomTom was trying to make me part with hundreds of dollars for a map. I remember thinking I’d probably wasted my money. Over time, though, great apps that addressed real issues or made a true difference to my life started stacking up on my home screen to the point where my smartphone was at the centre of most of my day-to-day activities.
“We may be somewhere around this point with VR. The good hardware is pretty expensive, there are a lot of gimmicks and most of the truly legit and compelling use cases are still in niche fields. There is a chance, of course, that VR will never cross the Rubicon, but I do see more and more interest from our clients and an ever-increasing stack of useful applications.”
Virtual reality has captured the imagination for decades. Before we could even dream of packing the technology required into a portable headset, humans have been finding ways to simulate alternate realities and trick our senses into imagining we are somewhere else. Just think of the “4D” cinemas at theme parks, which utilise wind, rain and other sensations to transport the audience.
The earliest known iteration of VR came as long ago as 1962, though, when Morton Heilig introduced the world to Sensorama. Sensorama was a huge mechanical device that was fitted with fans, smells, stereo-sound, a chair that moved and of course a stereoscopic colour display. It’s a very bizarre device that is a far cry from the sleek, portable VR devices being built for the 2019 audience. VR may be a widely hyped technology today, but it’s been that way for some time.
Illustrations by Kseniya Forbender
To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Margarita Khartanovich at [email protected]
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