Virtual reality takes off in the Gulf Cooperation Council countries

There is a thriving virtual reality industry in the Middle East, with the technology's application expected to go far beyond gaming

The UAE is mirroring global trends by eagerly adopting virtual reality (VR) technology. At last year’s annual Dubai-based tech show, Gitex, a major focus was placed on VR products and how they can support the region’s rapidly expanding travel, hospitality and media sectors.

Dubai-based digital media house Reach Mena, for example, launched its first virtual reality product last summer to support its creative studio. Through Sense R, as it is known, the company offers a platform to businesses to engage with audiences and make promotions.

“Property developers currently use 3D models to promote their projects, but with VR they are able to show potential customers more accurate 360-degree views,” said Usman Ahmed, senior account manager at Reach Mena.

Similarly, hotels are using virtual reality to display hyper-realistic footage of their facilities to encourage guests to stay with them.

For government entities, VR is a much more effective tool than traditional media for getting messages across to the public. “We’re using our technology with government departments, especially for training and awareness campaigns,” said Ahmed.

Google’s global VR chief, Clay Bavor, has stated that by 2026, virtual reality will be almost indistinguishable from reality. With numerous multi-billion dollar corporations competing for both the consumer and enterprise VR market globally, it’s likely that innovation could come about at a lightning pace.

David Martinez de Lecea, principal at Roland Berger Dubai, said: “When one looks at how much computer-generated environments have improved in just a few decades, there seems to be no reason to believe we will not be able to perfectly replicate reality in virtual environments. In fact, some people argue that there is a very real possibility we are already living in a virtual world.”

Read more about virtual reality

In line with steep global VR hardware growth rates, research firm IDC reports that annual spend on augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality in the Middle East and Africa is set to top $6bn annually by 2020.

According to management consultancy Deloitte, VR growth in the Mena (Middle East and North Africa) region is set to be driven by four main factors: increased focus by companies on delivering innovative, tailored products and services; increased pressure to reduce operational costs due to continued depression of oil prices; lower acquisition costs and greater accessibility to VR technologies and expertise; and an increased number of computer gamers and interest in VR-enabled gaming and enterprise applications.

“Early adopters of concept gaming products will continue to be the mainstay of the industry, but increasingly more products will begin to be purchased by casual gamers. VR-enabled games are delivered for PC consoles and mobile platforms, with the largest segment being PC solutions,” said Zaid Selman, assistant director transaction services at Deloitte Corporate Finance.

“VR applications delivered through smartphone and tablet devices will also continue to grow, however most are still at an early stage of development and will mostly appeal to casual gamers or technology enthusiasts.”

Investing in the virtual reality space

M R Raghu, head of research at Kuwait Financial Center, said many Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) organisations are strategically planning to get ahead of the curve by investing in the virtual reality space. “VR has many potential uses across various sectors, beyond just gaming. Industries in the GCC are eager to adopt AR and VR technologies to streamline processes and enhance the lives of employees, students and the general population.”

Raghu added that AR/VR could be used to deliver “on-the-go information” on daily purchases, discounts and coupons, thereby offering a more refined retail experience. He said it could also be used to improve the quality of education in the region through virtual tutors.

Other uses for AR/VR in the region could include virtual hands-on training on vocational courses, such as construction, medical and military. The technology could also be used to conduct virtual surgeries on those who cannot afford to travel for medical purposes.

Shaping the way content is consumed

Martinez de Lecea agreed that the biggest AR/VR demand comes from consumer entertainment, but said other applications for tourism, education, marketing, healthcare and real estate could develop very soon.

“AR/VR is a completely new form of communication that could dramatically shape the way recorded and real-time content is consumed,” he said. “We are just seeing the infancy in the development of the technology and its applications.”

Dubai-based entrepreneur Dany El Eid told Computer Weekly he saw a gap in the local market in 2012, prompting the foundation of his VR firm, PixelBug, which helps high-profile brands to adopt augmented reality to engage their customers. In May 2015, he launched his flagship patented AR platform Colorbug, a family-orientated app available on iOS and Android.

“We’re currently working towards implementing our AR/VR tech into the educational sector to help kids learn in a more flexible and interactive way,” said El Eid. “We particularly want to encourage learning Arabic by making it more fun and gamified. Learning Arabic is a big issue in the regional educational landscape.”

Success in VR depends on futuristic thinking and creativity

Lebanese entrepreneur Karim Saad is another local businessman who has set his sights on the regional VR market. His Dubai-based firm GigaWorks provides VR experiences, apps, tours and imagery for local businesses and the government.

The company is already competing on the international stage. “Technology nowadays is cheap and available to everyone. For me, if you really want be ahead of the competition, it’s about futuristic thinking and creativity.”

In just a decade’s time, the GCC’s virtual reality landscape is likely to look unrecognisable from today.

PixelBug’s El Eid said: “By 2027, VR tech will be part of the fabric of life and society in the same way televisions are today. It is the first observable step towards symbiosis between man and machine.

“Some people will be entirely consumed by the virtual world where they are stuck in many parallel universes, with their own niche societies and rules. AR and VR are going to eliminate the distinction between the digital world and the physical world,” he said.

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