Last month’s CES was, as usual, a peerless showcase for all things in the consumer electronics galaxy. For those interested in the market trajectory of virtual reality (VR), this year’s show was less flashy, but more substantive than CES 2016 and there were signs that VR is taking root.
Analysts (including this one) are generally in agreement that VR device sales in 2016 for flagship companies like HTC, Oculus, and Samsung were underwhelming at best. Both Oculus and HTC/VIVE sputtered into the market and confused consumers with hoops to jump through that included external sensors, controllers, and computer specifications. Games, which were seen as a sure-fire VR monetization vehicle, were unimpressive in terms of sales. Developers struggled to keep VR users from getting sick while using their apps, which is certainly not a problem most app developers ever faced before. Chinese manufacturers of mobile head-mounted displays (HMDs), which sprouted like weeds in 2015, were trimmed back dramatically.
Stabilizing and Refining Virtual Reality Systems
But at CES, there were definite signs that the fussy infant that was VR in 2016 is settling down into perhaps a more manageable toddler. More than one HMD player we visited had worked diligently to stabilize and refine their systems. Mobile player Merge VR showed a simple to use and solidly competent controller designed for its HMD. The FOVE HMD, rolling out to Kickstarter backers now, showcased game changing eye-tracking capabilities. VIVE introduced the Tracker, a sensor that expands physical simulation to a wide range of activities. Place one on a baseball bat and try to hit a pitch from 2016 Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer. In one demonstration, the Tracker was placed on the end of a fire hose, which allowed real firefighting equipment, with its physical functionality, to be incorporated into VR training software.
It was also evident that developers and entrepreneurs are gaining VR expertise and have a better idea of use case potential and business models. At the VIVE suite, entrepreneur Dr. Justin Barad, CEO of Osso VR, described how Osso VR has built a surgical simulation platform to help train doctors on using the latest medical equipment. Barad explained that surgeons regularly must travel to train on new surgical equipment. Osso VR will bring that training to the doctor through VR, enabling the doctor to be trained on their schedule and within their facilities, saving both time and money. The beauty of this use case is that Osso VR is selling the service through deep-pocketed medical device suppliers, who are highly motivated to help train doctors on this equipment.
ScienceVR, a startup featured at AT&T’s Developer Summit, showed an incredibly entertaining and interactive middle school-level science lesson for exploring the principles and history of electromagnetics. The founders launched ScienceVR as a side project with very little capital. The concept of photogrammetry, the science of making measurements from photographs to map the exact position of surface points, is taking root in VR. Photogrammetry will take VR video to a new level. Today’s VR video allows you to observe your experience from a fixed point. Photogrammetry will allow users to move around filmed objects for a truly three-dimensional view.
Why Enterprise Will Be the Key Adopter
The most subtle, but no less significant development is that there are signs that enterprise’s use of VR will have a major role to play in VR adoption. Several factors to support this statement include:
- Less Price Sensitivity: Whereas consumers may think twice before investing $2,000+ into a high-end VR set-up (complete VIVE or Oculus hardware, supporting high-end computer), enterprises, given the right return on investment (ROI), will not hesitate.
- High ROI Enterprise Use Cases: As illustrated by the Osso VR example and the firefighting training example by Intelligent Systems Research and Innovation (ISSRI), a broad range of training use cases make logical sense, producing greater efficiencies at a lower cost. Tractica’s Virtual Reality for Enterprise and Industrial Markets report lists multiple sub groups within training as high potential ROI use cases, including corporate, technical, first responder, and medical training. Another enterprise use case with significant ROI is VR in professional entertainment. Tractica expects widespread use of VR in amusement parks, arcades, museums, and cinemas.
- Lower Development Costs: For many enterprise VR use cases, the level of graphical immersion is not as important as the ability to place the user in the correct context. Developing highly immersive graphical “worlds” is very expensive. Context cues built into VR are a lot cheaper. For example, the visual environment for the VR firefighting training demonstrated by IISRI was not that realistic, nor important. IISRI placed more emphasis on some of the other haptic interactions. In the simulation, the user dons an actual firefighting coat, which heats up if you do not douse the flames properly. It also places an actual fire hose in the user’s hands. The hose reacts just as a regular hose would, kicking back as it is turned on, requiring the proper stance to manage it. Armed with a VIVE Tracker, trainees see the hose and its actual movements during the simulation.
All of these factors point to the quiet and slow, but surefooted adoption of VR for enterprise use cases, rather than wide-scale uptake through consumer-owned VR.