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Beyond the Looking Glass

Opportunities in Virtual Reality

Co-authored by George Oborne and Phil Robert-Jones

One of the major talking points at CES in Las Vegas this year focused on the emergence of VR (Virtual Reality). A quick glance at the schedule for the January 2016 edition of the show sees VR very firmly partnered with gaming. It is true that gaming has been the driving force behind the initial growth of VR. VR pioneers such as Oculus and HTC/Valve have already built products for gaming, films and other forms of entertainment that will be ready to launch with headsets early next year. However, as major development firms get to grips with this new technology it is becoming clear that the scope of VR tech has a reach, well beyond our living rooms.

For communities of entrepreneurs, the range of potential VR applications offers far greater opportunities. Easily obtainable tech developments in other fields such as robotics and AI are allowing developers to look beyond some of the financial constraints that had restricted the growth of VR tech in the past. Meanwhile, as the specifications required in the rendering of VR film become better understood, the net of potential uses becomes much wider. Solutions to some of the problems faced by people with disabilities are now feasible. AI also offers the potential for developers to bring a new dimension to life simulation programs, giving users the opportunity not just to speak to but also to visibly engage with simulated personalities.

The 2012 Fukushima disaster in Japan and the 2014 Ebola outbreak in Western Africa offer two very recent instances of crises resolved at the cost of human life. Work performed in hostile environments, often by skilled individuals, is currently unavoidable. VR technology partnered with fine motor skill robotics represents a very realistic solution to health and safety issues in a number of these workplaces.

While developments in disaster response and frontline medical support are in the early stages of discussion, military R&D efforts have been dealing with VR for years. This is due to the one overwhelming obstacle of money, with devices and their accompanying software costing hundreds of thousands of dollars. The potential military uses of VR are vast. Drones, which are already an important part of the US army’s military arsenal and such technology offers an opportunity to broaden the scope and sophistication of these devices. Beyond the battlefield, VR is also being used in military training programs to reduce risk to soldiers and to expose them to more detailed representations of the environments they will be operating in. Some other interesting developments have also been proposed. For instance, companies like VIPRVR are using VR to help treat veterans with PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). However, as firms bring affordable HMDs (Head Mounted Displays) to market, research costs will continue to drop dramatically.

From placing bets in a virtual casino, through to being given a tour of your not yet built home by an architect, experts across industries are awake to the possibilities VR may bring. While exciting, this focus on real work applications of VR should not diminish in any way the importance of entertainment VR experiences in developing the technology. When Oculus’ successful kick-starter campaign in 2012 broke their initial investment goal of £250,000 and instead raised $2.5 Million, it allowed them to take their project far beyond what was originally envisaged. The present quality of resolution, viewing angles, latency and the practical ergonomics associated with headsets is almost incomparable to what was available in the market three years ago.

It is also the field which is closest to monetization and there is huge room for growth within the sector. For instance the Oculus Store, Oculus’ attempt at building an app ecosystem for VR, is set for launch in Q1 of 2016. Meanwhile, HTC/Valve’s Steam has already started adding hooks into their popular gaming software, which recently broke 10 million concurrent users, pairing users with software that works with their VR headset. Facebook (who spent $2 billion acquiring Oculus in 2014) announced in September that they have “dramatically” boosted their spending on VR. It is clear that both within startups and within the enormous tech powerhouses, there is a huge amount of space and appetite for growth. Such burgeoning markets are difficult to size but Tim Merel, managing director of Digi-Capital, has been quoted suggesting that by 2020 it may be a $150 billion market. It needn’t cost you the world though, with Google Cardboard kits on Amazon for under $300, there’s no reason not to try it for yourself and become a creative innovator.