Hannah Simmonds, BA
Every year at Mobile World Congress there is one theme that rises above the others. This year that theme was virtual reality (VR). It was impossible to turn a corner without seeing an Oculus Rift or a Samsung Gear VR (powered by Oculus) offering an interactive experience for those willing to queue.
The abundance of VR might lead you to assume the number of use cases being demonstrated in Barcelona was as numerous as the stands adorning the headsets. You would be wrong. The use cases being pushed were overwhelmingly orientated towards gaming and entertainment – be that Samsung’s forty seat ‘rollercoaster’ experience or KT’s ski-jump simulator. My view is that the application of VR to gaming and entertainment is obvious, easy and uninspiring. Of the 2,200 companies exhibiting at MWC, I didn’t see a single one that had come up with a truly disruptive use case for VR. My question is this: will VR become a transformative technology, and what will it transform?
The three key areas for VR are education, news delivery and smartphones. In order for VR to truly disrupt these areas, it will need to be set at a lower price point and be compatible with smartphones. Samsung have cottoned onto the latter by giving away the Gear VR headset with each pre-order of their latest Galaxy S7 smartphone. The smartphone design has stagnated, most new features are simply updates to the black boxes we now call our phones. However, combine smartphones with VR headsets and there is a product transformation. Your phone is now no longer your phone, it is a further extension of your entertainment device, your news provider and your ability to go anywhere in the real or imagined world.
VR can also transform the education sector. Imagine teaching kids about marine life from the Great Barrier Reef itself, or the history of King Henry VIII from the Tower of London, or even physics from the moon. Suddenly school kids will be able to truly immerse themselves in the environment that they are learning about. VR could have a huge impact in benefitting the education sector and transforming schools into interactive learning environments where kids really can explore and discover new things.
A similar thing goes for news delivery. VR enables viewers to actually be taken to where the news is happening as it unfolds. This would totally change the way people emotionally and socially connect with the news and react to the latest stories.
For VR to have these massive impacts I have talked about, it cannot be a $500 headset requiring a surround-sound system and a moving chair to give the user a ‘4D’ experience. It needs to be a cheap, readily-available headset similar to those offered by Google Cardboard. In a world where the majority of people own a smartphone, the only real cost becomes the headset and if that is $20 then VR will be transformative.
VR has the potential to be a disruptive and transformative technology but not if the community that is developing it only looks to gaming applications. We need to be much broader in our thinking not just about applications but also about what VR will be as a product. Will it be an expensive high-end creation, a cheap mass market headset, or will there be a spectrum of VR products that cover a range of applications? My view is that there will be a range of VR products that will accommodate many use cases, just as there are a range of smartphones available. This will only be possible if developers don’t march down a single track just as we reach a possible inflection point.