Is AR/VR the future of immersive storytelling?
Discover the three factors that suggest virtual reality tech has finally come of age
The continued advancement of technology means that every iteration of virtual reality (VR) gets better, more affordable and less cumbersome. At IBC2018, the Future Zone explored how VR, AR (augmented reality) and MR (mixed reality) are already having an impact in the broadcast, media and entertainment industries.
From Zero Density’s virtual studio technology to Accedo’s augmented reality maps, there’s increasing evidence that VR and mixed reality platforms are in the ascendancy.
The availability of untethered headsets
One of the key advances improving VR accessibility is the untethering of headsets. The power needed to deliver an authentic and compelling VR experience traditionally relied on powerful local hardware, communicating with the headset using cables, which are unwieldy to set up and clumsy in use.
But this is changing. Both HTC and Oculus now sell all-in-one gaming headsets. These include the HTC Vive Focus – which is currently targeting enterprise use – and the Oculus Quest, a dedicated gaming system.
These battery-powered systems use Wi-Fi to download content, and boast internal cameras to map your location, removing the need for external sensors, They both offer six degrees of freedom tracking, and are driven by Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 835 mobile processor.
What they lack in raw power they more than make up for in affordability and convenience. And, once set up, you simply don the headsets and jump into VR. The Oculus Quest has been described as the Nintendo Switch of VR.
The appearance of more and more untethered headsets should help take VR into mainstream acceptance. Without suitable hardware, a revolution in immersive storytelling remains a fantasy. Which leads us to…
The arrival of 5G mobile networking
The rollout of 5G has big implications for ‘X Reality’ or XR – the umbrella term for AR, VR, MR and other digital ‘realities’. 5G’s 1Gbps+ speeds and 1ms latency is ideal for network-assisted VR, and not only detaches it from a PC or a games console but removes the need for local Wi-Fi connectivity too.
It’s still early days, but HTC has already produced a 5G hub for streaming content directly to the home. Better still, the intention is to support cloud VR in the future, delivering VR experiences to HTC’s new $799 Vive Focus Plus, or its upcoming Vive Cosmos, without the need for a PC.
The next natural step is to build headsets with 5G built in, and it’s likely that Oculus, HTC, Magic Leap and Microsoft’s HoloLens will all feature 5G-enabled models over the next few years.
According to a recent white paper from Huawei’s X Labs, the market volume for cloud VR will be worth $292 billion by 2025. Unsurprisingly, several of the major operators are preparing for this upcoming boom: Verizon has made a number of VR/AR acquisitions, while AT&T and Ericsson recently partnered to demo a wireless 5G VR setup.
And, as an alternative to cloud VR, Qualcomm is suggesting an ‘XR-optimised’ programme for AR and VR headsets that work with 5G phones equipped with its Snapdragon 855 processor.
This is already supported by Acer’s OJO VR headset and Nreal Light’s mixed reality glasses, with more devices to be unveiled over the coming months.
The potential for Social VR
Another potential growth area is Social VR (SVR), with platforms allowing people to meet up in virtual environments, either for collaborative working or just for pleasure. Since its launch in 2016, Against Gravity’s Rec Room has evolved from a collection of free-to-play VR mini-games to a lively virtual space where people can get creative, building custom environments to host events like live DJ sets and comedy gigs.
It’s estimated that Rec Room now has between 30,00 and 50,000 monthly active users.
Similarly, the social gaming platform, VRChat, has 4 million users, with 30% of those – between 40,000 and 100,000 monthly users – interacting with others using a head-mounted device.
It too allows users to create digital artwork and host virtual performances – and because the system supports full body tracking, participants can even dance.
Redpill VR and Sensorium Corporation, meanwhile, have joined forces to create an SVR music platform, where people can meet and attend live concerts in virtual replicas of real venues.
While VR has stalled in several markets, it continues to grow in popularity in China, which is set to become the world’s largest market for VR and AR headsets by 2020. The growth in hardware plus the advent of 5G – which is being rapidly rolled-out in the Far East – prompted Tencent’s CEO Ma Huateng to comment: “It’s time to seriously consider developing a VR version of WeChat.”
It certainly feels that the new breed of standalone headsets, 5G connectivity and social VR could be the perfect storm that kicks virtual reality up a gear. These factors are key to creating a more immersive environment that will help content creators tell better stories and develop more impactful experiences for viewers.