Ifyou haven’t heard of virtual reality…. Okay, wait a minute. I don’t believe that’s possible, not for anyone reading this magazine. You can’t avoid it. It’s the headline story in almost every Web page and newspaper, and featured in dozens of TV shows and movies.
As many predicted, VR was the featured topic at last year’s SIGGRAPH, and suddenly all those other hot young things from a few years back have cooled down. For years, we have argued that there is a practical consumer market for 3D content creation because the tools are so hard to use. That is changing as the tools are changing, and it’s the makers who are changing it.
But, I would argue all that is nothing compared to the change that is being wrought by VR. No matter how the huge surge in interest plays out in the long run, VR is stimulating content creation in 3D, and content is what it will take to make the technology successful.
What propelled VR into the headlines was the $2 billion acquisition of Oculus by Facebook.
“We’re going to make Oculus a platform for many other experiences,” said Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg while announcing the deal in 2014. “Imagine enjoying a courtside seat at a game, studying in a classroom of students and teachers all over the world, or consulting with a doctor face-to-face – just by putting on goggles in your home. This is really a new communication platform.”
Some people are skeptical about Zuckerberg’s vision. In general, people don’t like to wear goggles or glasses in their homes. It’s one of the reasons 3D televisions have never taken off.
Nonetheless, one of the reasons VR is getting so much hype is because it has traction – there is infrastructure for content creation, there is a base model in games and VR adds value (for some gamers), and perhaps even more important, VR is stimulating the development of new media forms. In addition, content creators are finding VR to be a useful tool to create content, and last – but absolutely not least – interest in VR is broad and crosses many markets, from games, to movies, to design, architecture, and manufacturing.
Predictions of the size and expanse of the VR market all indicate phenomenal growth and opportunity in all types of entertainment markets.
More than Entertaining
VR isn’t just for entertainment, although that’s certainly going to be the most attention-getting use, and potentially the most dangerous for disappointing the consumer and having them turn away from it, as they did with stereo 3D.
The Rift headset got gamers excited about VR, but many other industries are invested in the technology.
VR is not new, which most people know. It has been employed in non-consumer applications for decades, and still is. However, the volumes have been small and the systems specialized and usually expensive. But the people and organizations that bought and continue to buy those VR systems – the professional-use cases – did so because VR solves real problems, primarily as a tool for exploration and sometimes inspection.
One major use of VR, especially by industry and defense contractors, is the visualization of large, expensive projects by many people, all at the same time and all looking at different parts. Big-budget projects can be explored virtually without investing in physical prototypes. Using the basic models developed in CAD systems, engineers, managers, and contract administrators can see how the project will look. This is not new, as visualizations and animations have been used for years to test designs, find conflicts and interference from adjacent parts, and to test for buildability and user access. However, they used flat screens, and sometimes CAVEs, and were limited to the view provided by the driver of the simulation.
VR also has been used to train surgeons and medical students. Surgeons, using MRI 3D models, practice an operation before cutting open the patient. Knowing where vital organs or damaged portions are without having to explore in real time saves operating time and is less stressful for the surgeons and the patient.
A surgical operation is intricate and intimate by nature, and a lack of space and vision of the operation by anyone other than the surgeon is often difficult, so students usually do not get a good view of the procedure. This is especially the case in crowded operating rooms where surgical trainees perform multiple duties. Using a VR headset and a specially developed app, trainee surgeons can gain close-up, 360-degree views of a surgical procedure.
Industrial, scientific, and engineering examples abound, as well as training and maintenance applications. One of my favorite examples of training is for welding. Welders are trained to wear a mask, so what better tool to train them than a VR headset.
However, with the advent of Facebook-backed Oculus and competitors, VR is no longer just the preserve of large corporations and research centers. The ability to use parts that have been reduced in cost for mobile phones (like accelerometers and small high-resolution displays) has reduced the barriers to entry, and as a result, VR technology has become democratized. As cost goes down, demand will go up, and if the content is delivered, and meets user expectation, then VR will definitely be a component of our lives for quite some time.
Jon Peddie (firstname.lastname@example.org) is president of Jon Peddie Research (JPR), a Tiburon-CA-based consultancy specializing in graphics and multimedia that also publishes JPR’s “TechWatch.”