Virtual reality hurtling into the mainstream

  • AFP
  • Updated: Feb 19, 2015 11:35 IST

At this year's Geneva motor show, which gets underway on March 5, don't be surprised to see people wearing cardboard boxes or plastic, blacked-out goggles over their faces while visiting the stands. Carmakers have been very quick to embrace the possibilities of virtual reality headsets as a means of giving people an immersive 360° virtual test drive of their latest wares.

But, according to Facebook, that's just the start: soon VR could be just as mainstream and commonplace as the smartphone.

In fact, the social network is already looking at how VR will change the way its members use Facebook. Speaking at the Code/Media conference on Tuesday, Facebook's Chief Product Officer, Chris Cox said "I mean, virtual reality is pretty cool. We're working on apps for VR."

During his appearance, Cox went on to proclaim that once you've tried virtual reality you can see that it's going to be the future and that it's going to be "awesome".
And Facebook isn't alone in this regard. Samsung has developed its own virtual reality headset, the Gear VR, which uses a Galaxy Note 4 phablet as its screen and which is already on sale for $199.

Google unveiled its own take on virtual reality -- Project Cardboard -- at its I/O Developer conference in May 2014 and, as the name suggests, is a headset made out of cardboard that anyone can build at home for little or no cost. All they need are a magnet, some magnifying lenses and a compatible Android smartphone.

Microsoft is developing a headset that it calls the HoloLens, which, it claims, will usher in the era of holographic computing and is a cross between a full VR headset and Google Glass.

Earlier this month, LG announced its own VR headset based on the Google Cardboard blueprint and said that it would be given away for free when a consumer snaps up its LG G3 phablet.

And the newest entry into the VR sphere is Apple. On Tuesday it was awarded a patent for a "Head Mounted Display Apparatus for Retaining A Portable Electronic Device with Display," which is essentially a headset which uses an iPhone as its screen for offering immersive viewing. The device sounds similar to the Samsung Gear VR but the patent application dates back to 2008.

Kickstarting consumer interest

Virtual Reality first started creating a consumer buzz in August 2012 when a company called Oculus VR turned to the Kickstarter crowd-funding platform to fund the development of a virtual reality gaming and immersive video headset, the Oculus Rift. The company was looking for $250,000 in funding but ended up raising $2.43 million, and, in March 2014, Oculus VR and its headsets were purchased by Facebook in a deal worth $2 billion.

Since the acquisition, reports have emerged that as well as continuing to develop interactive video games for the headset, Facebook has been touring Hollywood studios demonstrating the Oculus Rift's video capabilities and the innovative possibilities it could offer filmmakers.

Developer versions of the headset are already available for those that want to design games and apps for it, but the Oculus Rift isn't yet ready for consumers.

However, Google's Project Cardboard is already on a roll, taking just six months to ship over 500,000 kits to consumers. The device already has its own dedicated section on the Google Play app store.

"The growth of mobile, and the acceleration of open platforms like Android make it an especially exciting time for VR. There are more devices, and more enthusiastic developers than ever before, and we can't wait to see what's next! We're also working on a few projects ourselves," said Google Cardboard's product manager, Andrew Nartker.

The car connection

One group of people who have clearly had their heads turned by VR's capabilities are car companies. In November, Volvo made history by becoming the first car company to adopt Google's Project Cardboard, using the do-it-yourself headsets at the LA Auto Show to offer visitors to its stand a virtual test drive of its latest flagship car, the XC90.

And Audi has done something similar, choosing Samsung's Gear VR headset as a way of giving potential buyers a taste of what it's like to drive an Audi TT sports coupe without leaving the showroom.

And the adoption of VR and of Google Cardboard in particular is not limited to car companies. Former White Stripe Jack White and Former Beatle, Sir Paul McCartney have both recently launched VR apps for the headset featuring 360° concert footage and other immersive effects.

Child's play

Toy company Mattel has taken things one step further, using Google Cardboard as a starting point for the redesign of its iconic View-Master toy. Unveiled ahead of the New York Toy Fair on February 13, the image viewer still accepts experience reel slides of images but when combined with an Android smartphone turns the static pictures into immersive active images.

"The View-Master was first introduced at the 1939 World's Fair in New York, giving consumers access to spectacular 3D worlds by simply selecting a reel and looking through a device," said Doug Wadleigh, SVP and Global Brand General Manager, Toy Box at Mattel. "By working with Google's Cardboard platform, we are now able to take that experience even further bringing the discovery and immersive viewing experience of the View-Master to the digital age. Combining technology and innovation with this classic toy gives kids an enhanced experience allowing for play opportunities not yet imagined through new, digitally curated content."

When the rebooted View Master goes on sale towards the end of 2015 it will cost just $29.99, making it one of the most affordable VR headsets on the market and, as it's aimed at children and is to be marketed as an educational aid rather than another way of gaming, it could be key to pushing virtual reality into the living rooms of the masses.

But even Facebook accepts that such a seismic change isn't going to happen overnight. "We're probably a long way from everyone having these headsets," said Cox.

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