When anyone talks about VR these days, they normally bring up Microsoft’s HoloLens, Facebook’s Oculus Rift and Samsung’s Gear VR. A recent product from HTC called the Vive just entered the VR scene and we have Google’s Cardboard VR viewer that must be added to this conversation.
I have had a chance to test most of these products and the VR experience each offers is fascinating. Microsoft’s HoloLens is perhaps the most immersive of the group but Facebook’s Oculus Rift also makes one feel they are part of the action. But both of these products are at the high end of the VR experience — pricey and not what I would consider a product for mainstream consumers. On the other hand, Samsung’s Gear VR goggles at $99.00 and work with a Samsung 6 series smartphone. It is a product that can give many consumers a taste of VR and what the future of true immersive computing is all about. More importantly, with the right apps, they can participate in VR now. Although its optics are poor and it does not provide head tracking as the others do, these low cost goggles still provide a glimpse of VR and how it could impact a person’s world in many ways. And, while Google’s cardboard goggles are interesting, the experience it delivers is mediocre at best.
There is a lot of skepticism around VR with many thinking this is 3D TV all over again. Perhaps, but I think this has more legs than 3D TV and, in fact, represents the way we bring immersive computing to a very broad audience. If done properly through a PC and priced moderately, it could even help bring the PC market back to some level of growth. Today, Oculus needs a PC to run but it also needs one that has a $300 graphics card while the goggles cost $600. But what if a set of goggles could be created for under $250, use the power of Intel’s integrated graphics to drive them, and deliver a great VR experience even if it does not rival the gaming graphics of Oculus? This approach trumps any mobile VR solution that exists now and would be more affordable for many PC users.
I believe the reason VR for consumers may take off sooner than later is the travel, real estate, auto, retail and advertising industries are about to embrace VR and make it an important part of their marketing and communications platforms. For example, the cruise industry will soon be taking 360 degree photos and videos of all the rooms on their ships so, when using VR goggles, they can put a person inside the cabin they might be interested in booking and allow them to “walk in the room” to see what it is like and then explore the ship as if they are there. The real estate industry has the same goals. When looking at any property, instead of seeing 2D images of what a house or apartment looks like, 360 degree photos married to VR goggles allows them to put a person into that house or apartment so they can view it as if they were standing inside. And the auto industry will capture a 360 degree image or create a video of a car someone wants to purchase so they can look inside and out as if they are actually at the car.
Creative advertisers will soon adopt VR and shoot videos and images with 360 degree cameras and create more immersive ads that are informational and entertaining in which a person will be viewing that ad as if they are in the ad environment itself.
Last summer, I got a call from the makers of Patron Tequila who wanted to come by and see me. I had hoped they were bringing me samples but instead they showed me a VR ad for their product. It started with using VR to take a person to the agave fields in Mexico and walk with the workers as they cut down the plants. Then to their distillery to see how they make their tequila and a short section of the three different tequila’s they make and how each are different with individual flavor profiles. The concept behind this is “experiential advertising” and you can imagine, if the creative minds in ad agencies embrace VR, the world of advertising could be turned on its head.
Let’s not forget about sports. This weekend, Fox will be providing a VR of a professional fight for use with Samsung’s Gear VR goggles. I expect the sports world to begin embracing VR in a big way over the next few years and create a lot of content for these types of headsets. A leader in VR sports content is NextVR, who will be involved with the Super Bowl and delivering VR content related to this event.
Also, we expect the education market to embrace VR as well. According to an article in TechCrunch, “Google is expanding its Expeditions program, the company’s effort to bring virtual reality-based field trips to the classroom, with the launch of a dedicated Android application for schools and educators who want to take their students on virtual adventures by way of mobile devices.”
As for retail, a company called retale.com is creating a VR platform for retailers. One example is their ability to provide furniture stores with the ability to deliver a virtual experience in which one could walk into a furniture showroom and see a couch or chair they want and look at it as if they are there in person. This app even provides a virtual sales person who could help with the viewing and possible purchase. The folks at Retale.com initially are doing this for the Oculus Rift but will add other VR headsets and platforms over time.
With all of this VR activity going on, it is interesting that Apple has been silent on this subject. Yes, there are VR Apps for iOS that can be used with Google’s Cardboard goggles but, as of now, Apple does not seem to have any VR interest or strategy of their own. That does not mean they are not watching this area closely or whether they even have R&D on VR. In fact, their lack of any public commentary in this may be strategic.
As one who has studied Apple for decades, it has become clear Apple does not actually like to invent new products themselves. For example, they did not invent MP3 players but, with the iPod, they made them better, easier to use and delivered the future of mobile music to Sony’s chagrin. They did not invent the smartphone, but they eventually created the iPhone and rewrote the history of mobile communications. And they did not invent the tablet. But with the iPad, they created product that brought tablets to the masses.
Apple’s MO is to sit back and see if a product has real interest by consumers and then apply their engineering, industrial design, services, and retail might to a product with the goal of making it the best of breed solution in the market. So, should Apple jump on the VR bandwagon anytime soon? Given their history, I don’t see that happening in the near future nor would I advise it. This is a developing market that needs flushing out. On the other hand, the way they attack markets that show promise makes it possible that, while others will try and get their product adopted by consumers quickly, Apple could be the one that actually delivers a solid hardware, software, and services ecosystem. No matter when they jump in, they could become a powerful leader in this space if they wanted to.
VR is still in its infancy and the idea it would only be for gamers and high end techies at first is probably correct. And, there are big issues surrounding the creation of VR content that needs to be solved before this takes off in a big way. But as more and more lower cost VR headsets hit the market and many industries embrace these VR goggles and create content for them, I believe VR will be driven into the consumer market much faster than anyone expects and will help deliver a much more immersive computing experience that could change they way people interact with content.