One of the most iconic pictures of nerdom was taken at the last Mobile World Congress when thousands of people in the audience were captured wearing the Samsung Gear VR headsets. Although this scene has been lampooned and ridiculed as a geek-only experience, the fact is the Samsung Gear VR headset has become the training wheels of VR and giving people who use it a taste of what VR is all about and its potential.
I know that Google’s Cardboard blazed the trail in low-end VR experiences and, if you want to get technical about it, Cardboard got the consumer VR ball rolling. However, Samsung’s integration of a 75 Hertz optics, powered by the Oculus Store and the automatic upload of specific content has delivered a powerful approach to giving anyone who uses it a pretty good taste of what VR is about. If they have an analytical bone in their body, they can imagine how VR is a game changer for entertainment, business and education.
For that, I applaud Samsung’s forward thinking on this and for the foresight to kick start consumers interest in VR. But I also see it as laying the groundwork for what will be the best delivery method for VR. If you want a great VR experience today, you need to buy the Oculus or HTC Vive headset powered by a PC with a powerful graphics card. And it is a tethered experience.
But that approach is cumbersome at many levels. First, having to tie it to a PC to handle the processing and rendering to me is kind of a boat anchor. Add the fact it being tethered limits mobility, especially in games where the virtual experience begs for a lot of movement.
I believe that, for VR to really take off, especially beyond its use in gaming and vertical markets, the headsets have to be untethered and all of the processing power and intelligence needs to be in the VR goggles themselves. To an extent, that is what Samsung does with the Gear VR since it is drawing all of its power from the Galaxy smartphone. But at moment, smartphones are too underpowered to deliver the same kind of experiences one gets with higher end models like the Oculus Rift and HTC’s Vive.
The good news is, in talking with all of the major folks in the VR component and device business, they all understand that, for VR to really gain broad adoption, it has to be through an untethered headset. More importantly, at least one key semiconductor player has already optimized one of their low power processors for use in a VR headset where all of the power and intelligence is in the goggles themselves. And other major semiconductor companies are also working on similar processors.
The way I see the VR market developing is it will get its first boost through the gaming sector. VR is a game changer for this $90 billion dollar industry and, while the VR technology is OK today, it will only get better and greater gaming apps will emerge and bring even more people into the world of gamers. It will also gain serious traction in vertical markets.
In past columns, I have written about VR’s impact on travel, cruise lines and real estate. In the case of the cruise lines, the idea is to put prospective customers in the cabin they might want to book or to virtually explore the ship they are interested in cruising on. VR goggles could also be used to deliver VR-based armchair travel experiences. As for real estate, they want to be able to let a person interested in a house actually walk through it via a VR experience regardless of where they are in the world and use it to shorten the buying cycle.
The ad world sees it as a whole new storytelling medium. Last summer, the folks from Patron Tequila came to my office to show me a VR ad. It started by allowing me to walk the fields in Mexico where they cut the agave plants. It then transported me to their distilling facility to see how Tequila is made. Finally, they highlighted all three of their tequilas, discussing their flavor profiles, all in about 2 minutes. But the experience of viewing this in VR made the ad so memorable, I can still envision the whole thing today as if I had just seen it.
We know sports teams and broadcasters are looking at ways to use VR to make it possible to feel as if you are in the front row at a game. Also, the entertainment industry is starting to embrace VR for future storytelling content.
For the moment, both the gaming and vertical industries will tolerate a tethered VR experience. However, I am convinced these industries would prefer an untethered solution if it was available. I suspect over the next 2-3 years, gaming and vertical markets will be the prime users of VR solutions but I have to admit the Samsung Gear could be a sleeper that drives demand with a large group of consumers sooner rather than later.
Samsung’s Gear VR headset is selling well and reports by those consumers using it like what it offers. The Oculus store gets new VR apps each week and is broadening its reach through apps like Netflix and Hulu. In fact, I watch all of my Netflix shows on the Gear VR now.
The other unknown when it comes to VR adoption in the consumer market could be Apple. They have been conspicuously silent about VR but we all suspect they are working on their own VR headset and expect it to be untethered, tied to an iPhone and connected to Apple’s ecosystem of apps and services.
Should Apple enter the VR market with an iPhone-based solution, they could accelerate the adoption of VR in the consumers space. I doubt it would come to market this year but it would not surprise me if they offered their own solution in 2017.
The market for VR will be interesting to watch since it really is a game changer in terms of the way we can play games, visit places as if in person and interact with a VR world for play, work and education. It is too early to tell how big the VR market can be, but the signs point to VR being a disruptive technology that eventually could touch many markets around the world.
I believe that, for it to take off, the headsets must be untethered so the users could have more mobility and freedom to interact with these VR apps and services in unrestricted ways. In that form, and with lower prices, VR adoption could move faster than any of us can dream.