VR Is the Surprise Technology of 2016

  
SXSW 2016 was one of the biggest tech events of the year. It brought some real focus to the VR/AR efforts being put forth by companies like Sony and Oculus along with some new small surprise players. This year the push to VR/AR is harder than ever. One of the biggest surprise announcements in the social networking world at SXSW is the move of Robert Scoble from Rackspace into the VR space with UploadVR. This is an important indicator because it reflects a shift from mobile entertainment to virtual entertainment.

The shift in the tech industry is worth noting because we have been in a post-PC world since the smartphone revolution of 2007, where most of the computing is being done on our pocket devices and tablets, disconnecting us from the need to be at a static, unmovable, power-sucking workstation. The VR world, in the sense of providing the most realism, requires more horsepower than even the most powerful mobile device can bring to bear for rendering reality. While devices like the iPad Pro are able to edit audio and video streams, this is not enough to drive 360 degree world content. Since dipping into “the Matrix” of VR is something one doesn’t take sitting down for a bite at Panera or standing on a bus, this is not the inconvenience you might first imagine. Nobody “does VR” with the same rapid attention shift we do for quick YouTube videos – it is done for a longer term basis to change the realities we experience. This may also mean a shift back from short staccato burst Vine style entertainment back to the traditional longer involved experiences we see with TV and movie viewing. The difference is the interactive possibilities that will let us participate in some of our entertainment.

I certainly don’t expect VR to turn my job into the “It’s UNIX!” moment from Jurassic Park (plz no) but I think VR is certainly the future of entertainment. Things like 3DTV and curved displays only hinted at what is already going on with VR which will be driving the release of new even higher resolution phone displays coming into the market. I think VR will soon get us to the point of obviating large screen TVs and tablets for the average buyer the way smaller phone and tablet displays took over TV and movies. Nobody will need an 80″ or even a 12″ screen when a 6″ smartphone just inches from your face will fill your field of view and simulate 20′ displays. It hints at the logical extension of this being a future interface that is quite the opposite of the large screen trend; the screen inside the helmet as the only visible interface you will ever need that connects with a tiny headless Wifi/LTE capable black box which your low power Bluetooth devices like a fitness monitoring smart watch and headphones also connect to. It hints at screen resolutions greater than 4K to keep you from seeing the pixels at that close a range. With browsers like Andy Martin’s VRambling Cardboard based web browser, VR makers try to make your long hours of web browsing inside of a visor. This is a further opportunity for advertisers and other accessory segments of the entertainment market to keep you immersed longer if they can avoid making their content take you out of the VR experience. Although I mention the ubiquity of small screens, the screens in your mobile device do not have the power to fully render true realism. For that we need compute intensive resources like Oculus Rift and dedicated workstations. This classic cost/quality/performance decision will be a painful trade off for VR users.

While the Sony PS4 and Oculus promise to be powerful experiences, they are equally and prohibitively expensive considering all the gear required. I am impressed with the HTC Vive and the Samsung Gear VR headsets but they are still overly costly for someone who wants to dip their toe in VR for the first time. There are still ways for the more frugal of us to experience VR:
Step 1: Buy cheap VR headset here or here
Step 2: Enable DLNA in your streaming software (My choice is Plex)
Step 3: Get Google Cardboard compatible SBS VR DLNA player app from your App Store
Step 4: Wow

For now we only had an old Google Cardboard headset in the house because one of the kids sprung for it at Engadget Expand a little over a year ago where they began to push VR. A “VR Box 2″ headset with a tiny handheld Bluetooth controller the size of a clicker is available for $20 (free shipping) which we will be waiting a few weeks for. It can accommodate smartphones 3.5″ to 6” Since I have a Plex server at home for streaming my home movies, I downloaded the @mgatelabs Mobile VR Station app as my Google Cardboard app of choice because it does DLNA. Everyone at home that I showed it to was immediately wow’d by how immersive and close to reality it all was to watch a movie. Mobile VR Station has an extension that you can use to demo HTML5 content such as the reference video Big Buck Bunny from Youtube. Just amazing. While I don’t care much for basketball, the free Big East court side VR seats are really smart way to promote the sport and this is the perfect time of the year to market that. The content out there is exploding with VR possibilities.

There are a few quality VR apps freely available such as the Discovery channel VR, Roller coasters, and travel tours. As someone who can spend hours in a small section of Museum of Natural History, the idea of VR museum tours is exciting. It not only spreads the arts further but let’s you experience something you might not even be geographically close to ever visiting. You should also pay attention for things like @funnyordie’s Interrogation which I really think will be the type of hypnotizing entertainment we will experience as the norm in a few years. The more boring world of real estate VR tours have been around for quite some time, though the 3D they used in the past was gimmicky spherical rerenderings of regular 2D photos. I want real 3D walk-throughout of environments where you actually experience being in that space. I feel the pinnacle of this will be a social VR player where you watch movies or perform other activities “in a room” synced with friends, whether or not actually in same room, and walking through their real or realistically rendered home. Having read Ready Player One last year (too bad the movie isn’t coming out til 2018), I think the book was very prescient about what we will see in VR the next few years with respect to interactions and avatars. It will be way beyond the Sims/Mii level avatars of vTime and provide you with the option to skin avatars with commercially available characters. For those that are uncomfortable or incompatible with the bodies they have been naturally provided, it offers real game changing possibilities. Think of what Facebook or Tinder could do with that!

If you are interested in generating your own 360-degree VR environments today, look at Splash announced by Robert Scoble the day before their app released. While I was very impressed with its ability to generate and share Google Cardboard and Facebook 360 video experiences as easily as someone can Snapchat, the content produced by Splash looks very jerky and improperly stitched. Artists expecting to producing captivating 360 VR content will need orders of magnitude more talent to keep people immersed. For instance, Penny Arcade’s @cwgabriel used Tiltbrush in the latest strip – that level of interactivity can keep users working for extended periods. It speaks volumes on how fast this is all already moving and quickly blooming into a visual revolution. It has truly come a long way from the blocky geometry days of VMRL.

Google would be wise to get a Google Cardboard mode into their Youtube app right away. The early adopters in these early days are going to set the standards and they could leverage Cardboard as the de facto API to cement the foothold in as many areas as possible. This is a nascent era of the tech, a small window of opportunity that won’t come again, and soon mobile vendors won’t have a choice but to API integrate it.

Only real complaint with mobile phone VR is it becomes a dedicated single purpose device, so proper handling of notifications becomes important. Notifications can take you out of the VR experience the same way they can pull you out of other things you experience on a daily basis: work and entertainment. Systems like BigScreen hope to keep you in VR spaces even longer and will need to handle notifications as part of your perceived environment.

We are going to see the gaming space rapidly expand in VR too. Can you imagine Mario Cart in 360 degree? (Look behind you!) Sadly, I haven’t kept up with gaming the past few years and get motion sick pretty quickly. VR gaming will only exacerbate that for me; I even got vertigo with the Cirque demo in Samsung Gear VR because I looked behind myself too quickly, not expecting the edge of the stage to be there. Adaptive systems like IonVR promise to fix that for me. Update: this is what Sony has planned for PlayStation VR which is pretty ambitious: http://youtu.be/0vrUNZR9iro

This is the year to bet big on VR, especially given the mystery surrounding Apple’s rumored VR efforts. I anxiously await the 2016 March Apple event next week to see if anything will be announced given Apple’s history of providing premium hardware with surprisingly new enhancements and shifts in the technology. I am excited for what will eventually come to iOS when all this matures. This will be a great year for these new unexpected technology experiences. By this time next year the VR landscape will be like wildfire. It seems like so much more than a fad this time. I predict every video app will have some Google Cardboard support even if it does not enhance the content to appear 3D, and we will all have personal video headset rigs to enhance our experiences.

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