Virtual reality is already offering a new form of entertainment and promises better buildings and surgery. Touch, temperature and even smell could soon add to the 3D experience. Bill Bennett reports on VR today and what’s coming in the near future

Virtual reality promises a revolution in entertainment, business and communications. The point of VR is to build an immersive, computer-generated experience. The best hardware blocks out the real world, replacing it with an entirely new, artificial reality. 

VR’s eventual impact could be as profound as the arrival of television or the internet. VR already serves up all-embracing digital experiences that include sound and vision. Soon, developers plan to add touch, temperature and perhaps even smell to the mix.

Business applications are emerging, but, for now, much of the nascent VR industry's focus is on gaming. Entertainment is a good way to get the first wave of any new technology out into the market. It works especially well for VR. 

There is a clear consumer demand for VR entertainment. A recent Telsyte study of Australian consumers found almost half of those planning to buy a VR headset expect to use it for gaming, movies and other entertainment. Hardware-makers take one of two distinct approaches to VR gaming. At the high-end, there is specialised hardware from Facebook’s Oculus Rift, Sony’s PlayStation VR and HTC with its Vive range. These products require sophisticated headsets and need 'game' consoles, or other powerful computing devices, to feed users a steady flow of 360-degree visual data. 

This isn’t such a tall order given that around half of all New Zealand homes already own a suitably equipped games console. In theory, everyday PCs could handle the load, but many PCs in circulation today aren’t powerful enough to handle the graphics processing required. They either need upgrading or replacing.   

High-end VR equipment may need substantial customer investment but prices are in line with other digital consumer hardware. The HTC Vive headset sells in New Zealand for around $1500. That’s about the same price as a premium mobile phone handset. 

There are cheaper options. You can buy less expensive headsets from Google or Samsung, for example. These piggy back existing technologies. For instance, Samsung’s Gear Virtual Reality headset works with its high-end mobile phones. And Google offers a cardboard VR headset for use with Android phones. The cardboard headset sells for around NZ$20. It gives users a cheap entry point – most graduate to more sophisticated hardware. 

Both types of virtual reality products are selling at a clip. At the recent launch of the Galaxy S8 phone, in Auckland, along with updated Samsung VR that works with the new phone, Jennifer Millar, Samsung’s product manager, said the $200 Gear VR headset is now one of the company’s most popular products. It is selling as fast as Samsung can supply the hardware, she said. Samsung recently added a handheld VR-controller to its updated headset, making it easier for users to command the software, rather than fiddling with controls on the headset. 

IDC Research reports a total of 10 million VR devices sold worldwide in 2016. This figure does not include Google’s cardboard headset. The search giant says that, along with its partners, it has shipped 10 million cardboard headsets since they were first introduced in 2014. Google adds that its VR app has been downloaded 160 million times. There are no New Zealand statistics yet, but across the ditch, Telsyte says Australians bought 200,000 VR headsets in 2016. 

The VR hardware business is still in its early days. It’s not mainstream, but at the current rate of growth it soon will be. This year, a fresh wave of hardware manufacturers will join the market with devices that work with Microsoft’s recently renamed Windows Mixed Reality Platform. Also in the pipeline are consumer products based on standalone VR reference designs from Intel and Qualcomm. These will help push VR further into the market. 


VR content – the chicken and egg problem 

While almost a dozen hardware brands showed VR products at the 2016 Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, many of them used the same demonstration software. This sent a clear message about the lack of suitable VR content. This is becoming less of an issue, but good VR content still remains thin on the ground. The world has yet to enjoy a single compelling VR experience – one that’s good enough to get millions to spend upwards of a $1,000 on new hardware. However, many people think this is only a matter of time. 

It’s a familiar case of the chicken and the egg. There needs to be a sizeable market before media production companies will confidently invest the vast sums needed to create new VR experiences. Meanwhile, the big rush to VR hardware waits until there is enough decent material to make consumer spending worthwhile. 

Games developers are furthest along the line. Valve, the company behind Half-Life and Portal says it is working on three major VR games. And there are now more than 1,000 VR apps listed on Steam, the online gaming service, although they are not all complete games. VR also dominated this year’s Games Developer Conference, in San Francisco, which now includes a parallel VR event. 

Sport is also a potential market opener. In the US, for example, one professional basketball game is broadcast in VR each week. In Europe, football clubs are already interested in VR. Intel is working with La Liga, the Spanish football league, to install VR hardware at three grounds. And, in the publishing world, The Economist, New York Times and others have experimented with VR content for its subscribers. 


Business application potential

Away from entertainment and publishing, VR has major potential in business. In many respects, it is a natural response to dealing with the explosion of data being gathered by companies in this era of digital transformation. Word-processor documents, spreadsheets and traditional presentation software are struggling to address the problem. People will need new ways to absorb and analyse these vast quantities of data, so moving to a virtual world looks like a potential answer.  

VR’s supporters say it can give workers a more intuitive way of dealing with and relating to these floods of data. For example, in the mining industry, a VR representation of an area’s geography and geology would be easier to interpret than two-dimensional maps. Early results suggest VR viewing can offer fresh insights into solving problems. Mining engineers can then go on to construct virtual sites. The technology is also helping improve worker safety and efficiency. 

In the construction industry, VR hardware is being built into smart helmets, allowing engineers to view blueprints in three dimensions while on site. Architects say being able to view and explore designs this way, getting real customer feedback, helps them produce better buildings and forge closer relationships with their customers, because of improved understanding. Meanwhile, the healthcare sector has already embraced VR. Surgeons can now use headsets as a hands-free display during surgery and some are even using VR as a sedative when drugs aren't available.


Take-off time

IDC Research says the world will spend US$13.9 billion on virtual reality and its close cousin augmented reality in 2017. That’s up 130 percent on the $6.1 billion spent last year. By 2020, the market will be worth $143 billion, a compound annual growth of rate of nearly 200 percent. 

Most of this spending will be on consumer products. However, IDC says industry spending is set to grow at an even faster rate. Leading the charge will be the manufacturing and retail industries. By 2020, industrial spending on VR will eclipse consumer spending. 



Virtual reality and augmented reality – the difference  

Virtual reality and augmented reality are closely related but quite distinct technologies. In virtual reality, the real world is blocked out. Instead, users get to see a virtual world that exists in a computer. They use stereoscopic goggles and headphones that fool the brain into experiencing a continually updated three-dimensional landscape that feels real. 

With augmented reality, the real world stays in place but is overlaid with other information. It’s the technology that lets you see Pokémon creatures in a familiar landscape. This means you don’t need an all-encompassing headset, the overlays can be seen on devices like mobile phones. Heads-up displays are a popular way of using AR, so are projectors. Google Glass was an early AR device that didn’t make the transition to the mainstream but is likely to be back in an improved form one day. 



Full VR experience needs high bandwidth 

For virtual reality to take off, it needs to be immersive – and to not make people sick. This means more detailed graphics and smoother movement. A lot of bandwidth is needed to deliver both of these. Let’s look more closely at the numbers.

Today’s VR systems use 1080p video, the same resolution as a high-definition television screen. The frames are 1920 by 1080 pixels, or about two million pixels in total. The displays are close to the eyes and two of them are needed, one for each eye, to get stereoscopic vision. 

While 1080p VR is good, it is still not detailed enough to convince users they are in a real world. For that to happen, 4K resolution is needed. That is about four times as many pixels as 1080p, which means eight times as much data as a conventional HDTV display. In other words, 16 million pixels. Every pixel has 32-bit colour resolution. It’s possible, even desirable, to go higher, but this will do for now. However, people notice if colour resolution drops much lower than 32-bits.  

VR users get motion sickness when too many frames drop out or when moving the head results in a jerky image. Oculus Rift and HTC Vive avoid this with a 90Hz refresh rate, which means they project two new frames roughly every 10 milliseconds. Future 4K resolution systems will need to match that speed. Local caching and intelligent compression algorithms can take some of the load. Even so, to get that kind of throughput online requires at least a gigabit connection.