Investments in the virtual reality space have experienced a significant uptick in 2016, but this ‘new’ technology has been around for over 30 years. The market is expected to grow from nearly $1.5 billion to over $30 billion in 5 short years. As a point of comparison, VR/AR investments totaled around $700M across all stages of funding in 2015. By March 2016, investments into the space had already surpassed the annual 2015 amount at over $1 billion. As 2016 wraps up, total investments into both VR/AR content and hardware are expected to exceed $2.5 billion, nearly 4 times the dollars invested in 2015.
Hollywood has already been exploring virtual reality as a medium with short films, including the production of a short VR film based on Wild, the film featuring and produced by Reese Witherspoon. Baobab Studios is creating animated movies intended for viewing… no, experiencing, with a VR headset. Consumer brands like PlayStation, Sony & Samsung all have some version of a VR system complete with a special headset that ties into their specific gaming console or mobile phone.
Augmented reality patent filings number in the hundreds and the largest players in this space are Microsoft, Google, Sony and Samsung. The infamous Magic Leap, possibly the most stealthy and mysterious tech company ever, filed for over 150 AR-related patents just in 2015.
Facebook has 400 engineers working on AR & VR, and the Walt Disney Company led a $66M Series C round for VR company Jaunt. Google has recently announced the release of the Daydream VR Headset to be used as an extension of its phone, similar to Samsung’s Gear VR headset.
But the question remains – why now? Why is now the right time for virtual reality?
Perhaps it’s the addition of mixed and augmented realities, which both contain some aspects of the user’s real location and background embedded into the virtual scene. Where mixed reality overlaps virtual objects into your actual view, or the natural world, augmented reality essentially goes one step further with a layer of digital content overlaid onto the natural world. Your surroundings, for the most part, look as they do without the headset, but virtual objects or details will also be visible to varying degrees; take the overwhelmingly popular Pokemon Go as an example. As a comparison, virtual reality leaves no trace of the user’s real location in view, immersing the user into a whole new world.
But why have we seen such massive growth and interest in the field in such a short time?
Essentially we have our smartphones to thank for that. In the last 5 years, we have seen rapid improvement in the computing power needed to make mobile phones smaller and cheaper leading to increased availability and abundance of the same technology needed to power virtual reality processing systems. We are now at a stage where the necessary hardware – headsets as well as handheld systems – are cheaper to produce, more streamlined and less bulky and heavy.
The success of the smartphone has led to improved quality and lower costs for high-resolution screens as well as motion sensors and gyroscopes that help VR equipment to track movements of the head and body. Estimates place the 1990s cost of today’s equipment at $1 million.
So, where do we go from here?
Up, up and up! The aforementioned Magic Leap envisions a world in which our normal lives are enhanced by virtual reality, where email and shopping can all be done in a virtual space similar to how we use our computer screens now. Within your augmented view of the world, you can easily switch between personal emails and work presentations, click through links to check out your latest online purchases and view screensaver-like visuals. All in a day’s work – or so it seems to suggest.
The applications for virtual reality are far reaching. The industries and markets that could benefit from virtual reality seem endless. Medical students can operate on virtual patients, shoppers can stay put while experiencing new furniture in their homes, consumers might be able to test drive a new car while never having to enter into a real car dealership. Sports fans can now experience their favorite teams playing as if they have side-line seats. The new NBA League Pass allows tickets holders to watch live games courtside via a VR headset. Imagine how this technology could be used to “attend” your favorite new bands’ sold out concert or be in the audience for an election’s town-hall debate.
It is not too difficult to imagine a world in which one’s experiences from morning to night are lived in a virtual world, much like Ernest Cline’s fictional world in the book Ready Player One. Whether this is a future to be hopeful for is up to debate, but there is no question that virtual reality is set to revolutionize our world in ways we may not yet be capable of envisioning.