This year will definitely go down as the year virtual reality (VR) reached the masses, thanks in part to the explosion in availability of headset. With multiple headsets on the market from Facebook/Oculus Rift, Google, Samsung, HTC, and soon Microsoft, virtual reality and its cousin augmented reality (AR) finally became available to anyone who could afford a headset, which was many.
Now developers are building on the burgeoning market with more apps, and improvements to the headsets as well. VR headsets aren't perfect; people often get motion sickness if they move around too much.
But you can't build software without the hardware, and you can't go into new fields and reach the masses without affordable hardware. VR and AR now have both. So where will virtual reality go in the future? We asked a few people in the industry and here's what they say.
1) More senses
Currently, VR and AR are visually-oriented. However, haptic feedback is a potential new use and feature for VR and AR to give you a feeling as well as a sight. Some videogame controllers already have this, where the controller vibrates to simulate action in the game. So when you reach out to something or move it, you get a sensation in a VR glove of touch.
And smell-o-vision could come to VR as well. Frank Azor, general manager of the Dell-subsidiary Alienware, which specializes in high-end gaming rigs, told Time magazine he believes future VR devices could introduce smell and perhaps touch in the form of winds and temperatures.
"The future is 3D. To people working in VR/AR this is incredibly obvious, because the minute you put on a headset, you want to interact with objects the same way that you interact with objects in the real world: with your hands. This is another reason why the HTC Vive (VR headset) has so many developers building for their platform because it is the only headset on the market which offers tracked controllers that allow you to interact with objects with your 'hands,'" said Sophia Dominguez, co-founder of SVRF, a stealth startup building a search and discovery engine for VR content.
2) 3D scans of buildings
Already there are VR projects to make virtual homes so people can plan out the placement of furniture. IKEA partnered with HTC, maker of the Vive headset, to create an app called the IKEA VR Experience, which allows interior decorators and designers to create custom kitchens, while Lowe's Home Improvement has rolled out the Lowe's Holoroom that hows the customer a 3D view of a room redesign before actually building it.
To give the fully immersive experience, a 3D scan requires a special camera. Erika Dalager, marketing and communications manager for roOomy, which specializes in VR room design, said 3D cameras are coming to make this happen. There's Matterport, which does 3D scans of homes for both realtors and home design, and Google Tango, due later this year. These new cameras will make VR more realistic and immersive.
3) Faster networks
The trend toward VR technology will have significant impact on how networking and computing services are provided to support the end users. VR apps will require real-time interaction with cloud-based servers, which impacts the need for high bandwidth connectivity, and introduces the requirement for low latency connectivity to support this real-time interaction, according to Scott Sneddon, senior director, SDN and Cloud, at Juniper Networks.
"VR devices could also require peer-to-peer connectivity, which is a traffic pattern that traditional mobile and wireline networks were not designed for. This could have far reaching impacts on how network service providers and cloud service providers architect their services, and creates great opportunities for creative solutions to these challenges," he said.
4) Smaller Headsets
Right now headsets are bulky, kind of heavy, and not very friendly to those of us with glasses. Only early adopters and gamers are going to go through the struggle of setting one up, but this will change quickly as more powerful graphics cards and phones arrive.
"Advancements in mobile VR will be incredibly important this year, as the inability to move around in VR experiences with mobile VR is limiting, although is great for watching 360 content. Intel's Project Alloy was the first glimpse of positional tracking working on mobile VR," said Dominguez.
As VR headsets get smaller, AR technology will also advance and eventually lead to the two being integrated into the same headset. Right now, the two are separate devices. "Day to day, you'll use AR more often because it allows you to see the real world overlaid with digital objects, however, for more immersive experiences (such as entertainment and education), VR will be the more natural fit. Social will be used in both," said Dominguez.
5) Growth in Non-Gaming Content
Right now the emphasis in VR is on gaming, but Derek Collison, founder and CEO of Apcera, a cloud management services provider, believes the world of VR will shift to content and content providers. "I do not think gaming will dominate, I think it will be more advanced shared experiences, starting with concerts, travel, safaris, etc.," he said.
As organizations offer customers the ability to consume more content and teams embrace the technical requirements to do so, Collision sees availability of VR content will increase as commodity pricing starts to slide. "Producing content is still expensive but I predict costs will start falling by the end of 2016 and the beginning of 2017," he said.
6) Teaching and Training
Watch out teachers, trainers and managers: Virtual Reality is coming for your jobs. That's the claim from Andrea Hill, manager of innovation strategy at ReadyTalk, an audio and web conferencing software company, and a proponent of VR.
"It seems ludicrous today, that the same technology that gives caffeine-fueled gamers vertigo could become a legitimate training and development tool, but it will, at such scale and with such richly immersive and personalized experiences that we poor humans won’t know what hit us," she said.
Coaching and training is subject to supply and demand constraints. A coach can only provide personalized support to so many people live and in-person. Virtual systems can be used by multiple people at once, with each getting that live feedback and course correction. Gone are the limitations of scheduling training sessions or finding the appropriate physical environment in which to conduct training; each can be conjured up at the right time and place.
As an example, she notes Virtual Speech, which helps people become more polished public speakers and Firsthand Technology, which offers better management of chronic pain. Both of these tasks required human interaction in the past.
7) Another perspective
The current challenge with VR content is that it is presented from a single POV. You can move and look in any direction, but you are pinned to the author’s or content creator's position. When content is authored with motion, the movement is fixed and creates a challenge. You can't look at the other side of a car, for example, if the camera only shot one side of it.
Or imagine a concert. Your perspective is where the cameraman was placed. It might be too close, or at a bad angle, or someone might be out of sight. But you can't move.
But what if everyone in the front row collaborates to generate VR content, theorizes Collison. The viewer can move between different seats. Soon massive and many computers will be able to stitch all of that content together to create a seamless experience and 360 views, he predicts.
"VR will fundamentally change the way everyone experiences life and shares those experiences. And this future is coming much faster than anyone expects," he said.