Big Tech Scrambles for a Piece of This Market
Last month, editor Ray Blanco was in a Wild West shoot out…
Don’t worry, he’s okay.
It was all part of his trip to Vancouver to check out the Consumer Virtual Reality Conference and Expo.
What big tech companies want a piece of virtual reality technology? How is VR being used to treat PTSD? And what the heck is a “VR condom”?
Read on to find out…
Managing editor, Tomorrow in Review
After waiting more than two hours in line, the assistant got me ready.
“OK, it’s your turn…”
First, I put on a “VR condom” — a gauze cover that went around my eyes — and then on went a virtual reality headset. These covers were handed out by the hundreds that day so that everyone could hygienically share headsets.
After a few adjustments in fit and focus to the virtual reality headset, a “pistol” was placed in my hands.
And for the next five minutes, I was in a totally different world.
This was a video game… but it wasn’t like a regular first-person shooter game on a PC or console. Anyone watching would probably have thought a crazy person was present.
That’s because at that moment, I wasn’t in Vancouver’s Convention Centre checking out the Consumer Virtual Reality conference…
… I was in a hyper-realistic representation of a Wild West shootout with a trusty six-shooter in my hand. This game required me to use my entire body to play… ducking, weaving, crouching and firing back.
It wasn’t just different from a PC or console game. It was unlike any VR game I’d seen before…
The headset was wireless, for one thing. This allowed ease of movement. Also, both the headset and the pistol were studded with small spherical white markers. These were designed to allow an optical tracking system to determine my precise location in the play area, as well as my posture, position and aim.
The company behind this setup, called VRcade, is bringing a unique VR experience to users. It sets up a dedicated VR gaming location, and you go with friends to play. Since it’s a dedicated VR activity site, there is no compromise with the quality, and the experience is very high-end.
However, I expect we’ll eventually see experiences like these come to home users as the cost of the technology needed to deliver it continues to fall.
The exhibition floor was full of different new VR concepts, from software development solutions to hardware vendors and end applications, including, of course, games.
I was impressed with what the University of British Columbia’s journalism school’s students were exploring with this new medium to tell us about the world. Part of an upcoming documentary about living with HIV in Chile was filmed in VR in cooperation with Vice News.
I was able to sample some of cuts from the documentary and it was compelling — even emotional — in how powerfully the experiences of individuals were conveyed.
And then there were what seem today to be off-the-wall ideas. VR is still fresh, and ideas of how to use it are only now beginning to occur to innovators. One example on display is using virtual reality for guided meditation sessions.
VR is also being explored in order to help deal with problems such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Researchers hope using immersive VR to take patients to different times and places can help. The idea is that exposing someone to what triggers an anxiety or a phobia in a safe environment can help desensitize them and teach them to cope in the real world.
Everyone Wants a Virtual Piece
All the big tech companies are trying to stake out a place in this huge new market. Google is particularly notable — as usual. Last month, Google’s Project Tango was a big part of the company’s I/O developer conference.
Tango is designed to take some of the features and functionality we associate with a headset-based augmented reality experience to the screen of a smartphone or tablet. The idea is to bring greater environmental and spatial awareness to your device so that you can point it at something in the real world and have an augmented overlay.
A Tango-enabled smart device could turn everything into a potential guided tour. Curious about a piece of art? Just point your tablet or phone at it. Tango will allow it to identify the work and tell you about it.
All of this might seem to put Apple in an awkward position, but you can bet the super-secretive tech giant is working on its own ideas in the VR/AR space. We might even find out as early as this month when the company has its yearly Worldwide Developers Conference in San Francisco.
And Microsoft is quietly working on getting its own solution, called HoloLens. The company is taking its time and trying to make the final product as perfect as possible. Perhaps it has taken a cue from the flop of Google’s Glass head-mounted display.
It’s important to remember that virtual reality is still in its early stages. Virtual reality headsets have been projected to reach $895 million in sales this year. That’s just a leak in a dam about to burst…some analysts have the virtual reality and augmented reality markets hitting a total size of $150 billion by the end of the decade.
This market will be so large and grow so fast that some small tech companies of today won’t be so small anymore. We’re barely scratching the number of different applications we will find for virtual reality technology. Clearly, some companies will profit enormously from the emergence of VR and AR.
To a bright future,