We’ve all heard about Oculus Rift, and now it seems that Mark Zuckerberg, who acquired the company for $2bn in 2014, is ready to throw his full weight behind it. At MWC in Barcelona last week the Facebook CEO described VR as “the next platform where anyone can experience anything they want. It’s going to change the way we live and work and communicate.”
Zuckerberg even made a surprise appearance at Samsung’s Unpacked event later in the conference, walking on stage unnoticed as the entire audience, made up of some of the most influential people in tech, donned Samsung’s Gear VR headsets – a glimpse of the future?
The race to create a world leading headset is well and truly on – besides Oculus Rift and Samsung Gear, Sony expect to release a headset for Playstation, codenamed “Morpheus”, later in the year, Google has released a cheeky “Cardboard” headset that retails at just $20 and works with a smartphone, and HTC says it has sold 15,000 of its Vive VR headsets, RRP $799 (Oculus will start at $599), which come with a front mounted camera that is able to introduce Augmented Reality style features.
But here’s the rub – whilst Zuckerberg believes VR Headsets could lead to future generations gathering around the campfire and sharing experiences, such as a baby’s first steps, from the other side of the world (an idea he first had when he was eleven, he says) he also believes that the technology will only run when 5G mobile speeds are available on most mobile networks. He says he feels it would be morally wrong to embrace 5G until his internet.org project has delivered 4G services to an extra 1 billion currently unconnected users.
In the meantime, the fate of AR, augmented reality, once thought of as the most exciting tech development around, before VR threatened to make it look obsolete, has experienced a turnaround.
Besides the HTC Vive, with its AR functionality, a company known simply as Meta released a headset known as the Meta 2 at TedX last month. This former Y-Combinator company raised $23m of funding through a Series A last year, and its headset is receiving favourable reviews, praising its 90 degree FOV (field of view), 2560 x 1440 display, and hand tracking capabilities.
It’s a step up from the Microsoft Hololens and good news for any AR fans who thought the phenomenon had died with Google Glass – an ugly, embarrassing failure if ever there was one.
Unlike VR with its promises of a transformative future, AR is all about the here and now. Companies like GoInStore, Pair, and Whisbi are all leveraging AR technology to give online shoppers a taste of the showroom. GoInStore uses headsets worn by in-store salespeople to enable online shoppers to check out products in store, from supercars to guitars, and uses an algorithm to match customers to the most knowledgeable salesperson for the product they want to shop. Pair creates an awesome interior design experience, working with makers and allowing its users to virtually place desired items in their homes, creating the ultimate AI enabled interior design experience, and Whisbi provides live video showrooms, working with brands like Toyota, Audi and Fiat to create award winning experiences.
The question that used to be asked was – “yes, AR looks cool but what can it be practically be used for?” Well now marketers and salespeople are providing down to earth use cases, whilst VR’s head(sets) remain firmly in the clouds. And there’s no need to wait for 5G to get cracking with AR experiences – AR is firmly in the here and now, with plenty of developer kits being released for ingenious techies to play with and create more practical, every day applications.
Meanwhile, another surprise lurks on the Horizon – a company known as Magic Leap has raised almost $1.4 billion from the likes of Google and Alibaba is “building a light field display which will beam holographic images directly onto your eyeballs.” No need for dorky glasses then.
If the future really is all about AR, or VR, questions remain; are the two mutually exclusive? Is one the real deal, the other a false dawn? Only time will tell, and most experts believe we are at least a decade away from judgment day.
But for now, in practical terms at least, AR is the one with its feet on the ground – as for headsets – it’s still a case of “put your hands in the air like you just don’t care” as you stumble around trying to get your bearings. Its a good metaphor for the industry as a whole. Dance like nobody is watching.