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Virtual insanity: Is 2016 the year users go big on VR?

At Mobile World Congress 2016 in Barcelona, virtual reality appeared to emerge as a technology that is at long last hot to trot – but is it still a lot of virtual hype?

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Virtual reality went viral at Mobile World Congress (MWC) 2016 in Barcelona last month, when Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg dropped by for the launch event for Samsung’s new Galaxy S7 devices, which come complete with VR headsets.

Zuckerberg’s surprise appearance was memorably snapped by a photographer, who captured the billionaire developer in his trademark dress-down style alongside a crowd of spectators, all wearing individual headsets and completely oblivious to his presence.

The photo quickly travelled around the internet, and many commentators hailed it as a sign of an impending, dystopian future, with the population all hooked into the virtual matrix, sated on a diet of constant high-definition entertainment, in thrall to their boot-cut jean-wearing overlords.

Forrester consumer mobile analysts Julie Ask and Thomas Husson were both in the audience, and among the VR detractors.

“The VR experience feels a little like Wi-Fi in the early days – sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t,” said Ask. “My VR headset experience didn’t work at all. Seems super cool, when or if working. It wasn’t until Mark Zuckerberg got on stage that the energy picked up in the room.”

Husson said Samsung was going big on VR partly because it could afford to, and partly because it wanted to maintain its leadership in high-end smartphones – an area where most authorities now agree innovation has effectively stagnated.

“No doubt VR will help to create buzz among media, gamers and the niche audience demanding immersive experiences,” said Husson. “But will it offer consumer benefits for the masses? The short answer is: no. In 2016, reach for VR platforms will remain limited.

“While the primary use cases will be for immersive gaming and entertainment environments, innovative marketers at retail, automotive, travel or hospitality companies will start piloting VR prototypes to connect in new ways with consumers in the discovery and explore phases of the consumer lifecycle. The vast majority of marketers should not even care about it and have many other things to fix.”

Consumer awareness

Many observers were impressed, however, and among them was Andy Webb, Carphone Warehouse UK buying director of mobile products.

“Virtual reality is one of the hottest tech topics of the year so far, following impressive new products unveiled at CES, including the HTC Vive, so it’s exciting to see this once again being brought to the forefront in the mobile industry,” said Webb.

“LG’s ‘Friends’ peripherals – which include a full 360-degree VR camera – and Samsung’s Gear 360 and Gear VR, are part of this new trend. Ahead of MWC, we asked the public about their thoughts towards VR, and we discovered there was a lack of awareness about it due to the majority of people not actually having experienced it for themselves.

“But with LG and Samsung now both offering VR capability and at a competitive price, we expect consumer awareness to increase significantly.”

Good for gamers

Back in the 1990s, when the presenters of Tomorrow’s World plugged in clunky headsets and went exploring a world of blocky graphics, gaming was held up as the first big use case for VR.

The technology may not have really taken off 20 years ago but, as predicted, it has attracted interest among gamers, and with interest in VR growing, a number of games publishers made their presence known at MWC.

Among them was the Campfire Union, a Canada-based VR studio and platform developer, which showed off what it described as the first VR card game, a new version of the Lost Cities title, which allows players to play surrounded by the game’s fantasy world.

Campfire Union chief innovation officer Lesley Klassen said that although Lost Cities had gained cult status among tabletop gamers, the overall experience was quite abstract.

“That’s where the VR experience really comes to the fore, adding a new layer to the game play,” he said. “Players can look up from the cards on the table and through their VR device to see amazing scenery, and be surrounded by the sound of crunching snow on those mountains or the howls of the creatures in the rainforests.”

Campfire Union, which was brought to MWC for the first time by ICT West, a tech sector consortium representing firms in Alberta, British Columbia, Manitoba and Saskatchewan, is already seeking tie-ups with mobile game publishers and VR partners.

Changing the rules

Kevin Curran, computer science reader at the University of Ulster and IEEE fellow, said virtual reality was now reaching a point where it could go mainstream.

“The problem with online is it’s a two-dimensional, flat experience,” he said. “But virtual reality is the perfect product to make us forget we’re online and deliver true immersion.

“It will allow you to engage on social networks with avatars, in gaming, in films and entertainment. It is definitely here to stay. It can only get further and further into the consumer world. I think there will be a lot of competition out there in the VR space, but Oculus will be the leader. I begin to see why Facebook bought it.”

Curran said he did not buy into the arguments around the dystopian future that may, or may not, await humanity, saying that everyone was already disconnected.

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“If you’re on the Tube, you’re not connected to anyone else – you’re not supposed to look at anybody, really – but the rules have changed as so much of the world has moved online,” he said. “I think as long as you are interacting with your family or your loved ones, there is some grounding in reality.”

Curran conceded that nobody would really want to walk into a room where everyone was wearing a VR headset, but he forecast that over the next few years, the technology will evolve to become more discrete, with more of an emphasis on augmented reality (AR).

He said society would evolve to accept a set of circumstances where full VR is acceptable. “I think VR will be used a lot more in the home or in driverless cars,” he said. “There will be times and places where it is acceptable to use it.

“But again, people complain about people burying their heads in their phones, but everyone’s head is buried in a phone already, and that’s actually fine. You’re as likely to see a 50-year-old on a bus texting as a 12-year-old. Even the person complaining is buried in their phone.”

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