What will the tipping point be for mass adoption of virtual and augmented reality? This year's Mobile World Congress has some clues.
The potential growth of virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) won’t be realized until there is more content available. People are not jumping to buy VR headsets and, despite the efforts of some vendors promoting them and bundling them with other devices, the sales of headsets and other VR devices has been slow.
While VR headsets hold tremendous potential, only 12 million were sold in 2016, mostly inexpensive units to use with smartphones. This year, new devices arriving from several manufacturers, and faster, cheaper, video processors, could boost VR to the masses.
The real size of the VR market is difficult to estimate. According to a July article in Fortune: “Analysts are divided over how quickly virtual reality will catch on. At the high end, 20 million units could be sold this year , including all types of VR headsets and accompanying controllers and accessories, according to market research firm Tractica. Neil Schneider, executive director of the Immersive Technology Alliance, came up with a much smaller estimate of 300,000 units in the first 12 months on sale.” Also according to Schneider, smartphone based VR headsets, such as the Samsung Gear, could sell well as an attractive bundle. Analysts, however, are reducing their estimates. Market tracker Digi-Capital has cut their forecast from $150 million to $120 million for 2020.
Facebook and Samsung boost
During the Samsung Galaxy S7 launch event last year in Barcelona, Mark Zuckerberg made a surprise appearance that was as much about VR as the introduction of Samsung’s new flagship model. Zuckerberg took the stage to talk about VR and 360-degree immersive video as the new way of sharing life experiences on social media. But VR wasn't merely talked about in the abstract. Everyone attending had an Oculus VR headset waiting at their seat. The stage, in the center of the room, was a large black box that opened to the ceiling. We used the VR headsets to watch the introduction of the Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge smartphones. Later that same week, at the Mobile World Congress, Zuckerberg went on to talk about his vision of people using 360º cameras to record VR videos to share with friends and family. He called VR the “next step in sharing our life events on the internet.”
During last year’s MWC we were able to see, and experience, different approaches to record, display, and experience VR. Many of the VR headsets on display are designed to integrate with your smartphone, though we're not entirely clear on how "mobile" you can be wearing one of these rigs. The cameras are meant to make it possible for anyone to create and share 360-degree video. Some are even compatible with Google Street View, providing a location-aware experience.
Despite all the attention that VR had last year, we are still years away from the technology becoming a common household item.
Apple working on augmented reality solutions
Also, VR/AR won’t take off until one of the major players in the consumer market announces its plans. Apple has been secretly working on software and devices to enter the market with its own product. As usual with everything Apple, several rumors and unconfirmed leaks are appearing on the internet, some more believable than others.
One of the rumors, published by Bloomberg citing people familiar with the matter, suggests that Apple is working on iPhone-orientated AR and Google Glass-style AR glasses. According to the article, Apple won’t be considering a full VR headset, but a device that brings Augmented Reality features to iPhone users. Bloomberg’s article mentions that Apple has been acquiring AR technology companies in the past few years: “In 2013, Apple bought PrimeSense, which developed motion-sensing technology in Microsoft Corp.’s Kinect gaming system. Purchases of software startups in the field, Metaio Inc. and Flyby Media Inc., followed in 2015 and 2016.”
Apple’s CEO Tim Cook talked about AR several times last year, and expressed his views on the potential of the technology: "I’m excited about VR from an education point of view, I think it can be really big for education, I think it can be very big for games. But I can’t imagine everyone in here getting in an enclosed VR experience while you’re sitting in here with me. But I could imagine everyone in here in an AR experience right now, if the technology was there, which it’s not today.”
The Google Glass style Apple device, according to the same Bloomberg article, will connect wirelessly to the iPhone and will be marketed as an enhanced visual experience. The first model won’t be ready until next year and will face serious technical difficulties, especially due to battery life, one of the main reasons Google Glass never took off, apart from privacy concerns.
If Apple overcomes the difficulties, the new Apple “Glass” could signal the mass adoption of AR technology, the same way people started buying tablets after the launch of the original iPad.
Fully autonomous VR headsets
Chipset manufacturers are taking a more direct approach. Both Qualcomm and nVidia are offering their high-end chipsets to VR headset manufacturers that want solutions independently of the smartphone. Last year we were able to see the HTC Vive running on a souped-up PC equipped with a nVidia GeForce GTX 970 card. This year we could see headsets running entirely on internal chipsets.
Nvidia recognizes that potential, as the company notes on its website: "Virtual reality is set to change the way we enjoy entertainment, interact with friends, and get our jobs done. As the leader in visual computing, NVIDIA is at the forefront of this exciting new computing platform. From gaming to product design to cinematic experiences and beyond, NVIDIA delivers groundbreaking solutions for VR-including industry-leading Pascal GPUs, drivers, and SDKs-to meet the needs of professionals, gamers, and developers."
nVidia Tegra processors are already present in mobile VR and augmented reality devices, including headsets from GameFace Labs and Atheer.
Qualcomm is marketing their Snapdragon 821 processor as the ultimate VR engine. According to their website: "the Qualcomm Snapdragon 821 processor, is designed to meet the VR processing demands within the thermal and power constraints of a wearable VR headset." So far there are no commercially available VR headsets featuring the processor.
I have no doubt that VR and AR will have a big presence at this year’s MWC, which opens in Barcelona on Feb. 27th. The show will give us an opportunity to see what the industry is doing and the real potential of the new market.