We are approaching the dawn of a new era. No, scratch that – dawn broke a few hours ago and we’re stumbling groggily into our first cup of coffee. Something massive happened in 2015, and you probably missed it, but you won’t miss it in 2016-17, because it’s going to be everywhere.
It’s called virtual reality (VR), and yes, while you’ve undoubtedly heard about it, what you perhaps don’t realise is that in the coming years, it’s going to impact everything from the way you shop to the way you watch TV, interact with friends and more.
Fast-forward a few more years, and there’s a good chance that VR will be so ubiquitous you’ll struggle to remember life without it.
If you want an analogy, VR technology today is what the mid-Nineties was to the Internet. So you can bet your last dollar it’s about to explode.
‘The technology is finally entering a level of maturity that developers and content creators always dreamed it would,’ says Daniel Cheetham, chief interactive officer at the London-based global production company Happy Finish, which has created VR experiences for brands like Subway, Ted Baker and Tata.
‘This means that right now, the VR experience can be pretty mind-blowing, but over the next 12 months, things are only going to get better as more is thrown at it by the world’s biggest tech companies. This is the moment where science fiction and real life really come together.’
If you’re thinking this all sounds weirdly familiar and that VR has been just around the corner since the 1992 movie The Lawnmower Man, try and sideline your scepticism for a moment and look at the line-up of industry giants that are getting behind it: Mark Zuckerberg, Samsung, Google and just about everyone who knows anything about tech.
VR is going to be a $30-billion (Dh110 billion) industry by 2020, says tech adviser Digi-Capital. Goldman Sachs, meanwhile, has suggested the number will be $110 billion by 2025, and that VR will overtake the TV market around the same time. Facebook founder Zuckerberg is just one of the people determined to make that happen.
Mark Zuckerberg jumped into the bandwagon in 2014 when he invested $2 billion in Oculus, which is in the vanguard of VR experience.
In order to demonstrate his commitment, he spent $2 billion to buy a young company called Oculus VR in 2014, and has since spent many millions more helping it to get its first VR headset – Oculus Rift – ready for launch. It’s now on sale at $599, and if you’re in the queue for one (you have to buy it directly from Oculus and there’s a waiting list), you’ll be able to put it on, plug it into a high-spec computer, and download content that will immerse you in whatever world takes your fancy.
Imagine that you want to go on a virtual tour of the Everest base camp. Look left, and you might see tents; to the right, Sherpas milling around. Look up, and there’s the world’s tallest mountain’s towering mass. With a controller in hand, you’ll be able to move in any direction you want, and even climb to the peak.
More of Oculus in a moment, because it is just one of several players in the VR field. South Korean giant Samsung was the first out of the blocks last year with a device into which you slot a Samsung smartphone for an impressive VR experience, giving people a taste of things to come. The same was true of Google Cardboard, launched in 2014 and comprising a cardboard kit into which you place any old smartphone. You can buy this now for about $10 if you want a not-very-state-of-the-art preview of what all the fuss is about.
However, the real race is centred around a stand-alone VR device that doesn’t need a smartphone: a headset that comes with its own built-in screen. Multiple players are on the march – Taiwanese company HTC is about to start delivery of its long-awaited headset called the Vive, tagged at $799 and different from most of the others in development because wearers can wander around a room with it on while their movements are mapped on whatever virtual space they’re occupying.
Microsoft, meanwhile, is expected to launch a consumer version of a gadget it has called the HoloLens at some point next year, although this is more in tune with augmented reality than true VR. In other words, the front of your headset is transparent, so you see whatever you’re looking at in the real world as 3D images and holograms. Think a very exciting version of Google Glass and you’re half-way there.
Then, there is Sony, whose headset that connects to the popular PlayStation 4 console will put premium-quality VR tech within the grasp of millions. The PlayStation VR ($499) is coming this October.
There are others – everyone from Apple to Google is thought to have something impressive in development – but the biggest, most talked-about player is undoubtedly Oculus and its Rift headset. This is Zuckerberg’s baby, one he envisions as the future of Facebook in the long term, as he told Vanity Fair in an interview last October.
The entrepreneur has already elevated the social networking site to a multimedia experience, and its VR capabilities were recently hinted at with the addition of 360-degree videos in which you can control where you’re looking by moving your mouse. Just type in 360 video on Facebook or YouTube and have a look – they’re impressive.
The Rift’s release was pushed back repeatedly, but the first shipments have now begun. Zuckerberg thinks VR will soon become a kind of teleporter where you can visit virtual worlds and interact with friends and family.
Oculus is likely to spawn a whole industry. San Francisco-based tech company Leap Motion, for example, is currently working on gloves that you can use with the Rift that will allow you to see a pair of hands before your eyes when wearing the headset. Move your hands and fingers in the real world, and your virtual mitts move in the virtual one. The company’s demo video on its website shows a user moving boxes around, and while that may sound dull, it’s a glimpse of something truly incredible.
So what else are you going to be able to do apart from move imaginary cardboard boxes using VR? The possibilities are endless, but here are the three key areas.
The greatest excitement about the capabilities of VR lies in how it will take video gaming to a whole new level. While many a young gamer (and concerned child psychologist) will tell you that a big TV and a game of Call of Duty are pretty realistic, VR will as good as put you on the battlefield. That creepy footstep you hear behind you in the forthcoming VR zombie game Arizona Sunshine? Just turn your head and you’ll see your undead assailant and then you can let him have it. Techradar.com reckons that story-driven games will really shine in the VR format, allowing players to explore virtual worlds and find clues/perform challenges to move the plot forward.
Elsewhere on the entertainment spectrum, live events will be given a new lease of life courtesy of VR. If you can’t be at the Dubai World Cup in person, enjoy the sights of race day and the sounds of thundering hooves at home in your living room. Analysts predict that the live sports sector alone could be worth $4 billion a year within a decade. Eventually, VR could be such an accepted way to watch major events and even live concerts that content providers will be able to charge a premium depending on where you want to sit.
Movies is another area that is ripe for exploring, but the benefits of VR in cinema are less obvious. While VR movies were given a showcase at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and some garnered good feedback, Pixar co-founder Ed Catmull told The Guardian in December that VR film-making is ‘not storytelling’. That said, The Atlantic reported earlier this year that Disney had recently led a $65-million round of investment in a company called Jaunt, which specialises in cinematic VR experiences.
VR is predicted to take medical science to new heights as experimental psychological treatments show promise.
Tech website Engadget reported in February that University College London and the Catalan Institution for Research and Advanced Studies had undertaken a pilot study into how VR could help people with depression. The professors’ methodology seems a little left field, but it seems to have worked, with almost two-third of the 15 test subjects reporting positive results after the trial. In a nutshell, participants see themselves through their VR headset as an adult helping a distressed child. Then, they become the child and experience the adult being kind to them.
On the other hand, the BBC reported the work of two London psychologists using VR to help people with phobias. Donning a headset, patients with claustrophobia, for example, are led into ever smaller spaces. While unsettling, it’s certainly not as unnerving as the real thing, and patients’ anxiety levels diminish the more they do it. Early feedback is that after several sessions, people with claustrophobia are able to face real-world challenges more easily.
On a related note, VR is exceptionally well suited to the world of education. Already, Google’s Expeditions Pioneer Programme is allowing teachers to escort students on virtual tours of Paris, Verona, Barcelona, the bottom of the ocean and more.
One of the most wide-reaching areas in which VR is predicted to shine is in the field of marketing and promotions. And yes, it will make life interesting for buyers too. Sotheby’s International Real Estate is already offering virtual tours of luxury properties in Los Angeles and The Hamptons. Fast-forward a few years and multiple realtors will be able to offer buyers the chance to eliminate properties that are not to their liking without wasting time physically getting there. The same is true of hotel suites: if you’re looking for a dream vacation and it’s going to cost a fortune, wouldn’t you like to tour your suite virtually before you go? Shangri-La is already in the process of rolling out the service.
In multiple markets – be that the world of supercars, luxury watches or aviation – companies are starting to embrace ways in which they can give clients a taste of what their products feel like. As tech improves, a virtual drive in a Ferrari may be all a customer needs to convince him to bag it, and for the dealer, it’s a lot less stressful than surrendering the keys for a test drive.
As far as the UAE goes, the VR revolution has already begun – unsurprising given that we are so in sync with cutting-edge global technology. Dubai-based Giga Works has helped create VR customer experiences for Dubai Airports, US car company Dodge and the Wild Wadi Water Park, while Aurora Gaming says its new Virtual Reality Lounge – scheduled to open soon – will offer ‘the most immersive and engaging gaming moments you’ll ever have’.
Mohamed Thameem, business development manager at Dubai-based Fractal Systems says: ‘The UAE is a great place to be for VR tech. The government really adopts the latest technology quickly and there are lots of opportunities here. We’ve been doing this for the past five years and enquiries have gone from just a few during our first year to a couple of enquiries every month.’ The company’s recent projects include an immersive experience which lets people feel like they’re pop stars staring out at an excited crowd.
So the next time you’re in The Dubai Mall and there’s a promotional stand where a man or woman is holding what looks like the world’s chunkiest pair of sunglasses, wander over and give it a go. Sure, you might feel a little self-conscious, but remember that we all had to type www for a first time, too.