Virtual reality: Why we're just scratching the surface

Is the world at the cusp of a revolution in virtual and augmented reality technology?
By Bernd Debusmann Jr
Sat 04 Nov 2017 02:39 AM

Imagine traipsing through the depths of the Brazilian Amazon on a hunt with indigenous tribesmen, a cacophony of jungle noises ringing in your ears and the steamy stench of tropical plants in your nostrils.

Now try to visualise that just minutes later you’re on board the Russian Soyuz spacecraft, strapped in tight as you re-enter earth’s atmosphere after a successful space mission. Or maybe you’re sitting in a dark London underground station in 1940 as German bombers pound the city above.

These possibilities – and many others – have already been successfully accomplished in virtual reality, and you can do all this from the comfort of home. But, according to experts, the world is only just beginning to scratch the surface of what is possible with virtual and augmented reality technologies, which experts say will change the face of industries ranging from entertainment to education, combat training and, of course, business.

Around the world, companies are already putting virtual reality (VR, in which users are completely immersed in their digital environment) and augmented reality (AR where users can interact with their real-life surroundings), to use for a variety of purposes. They include virtual reality showrooms that allow customers to “experience” their custom-made vehicles before they buy. Aircraft manufacturers use VR to construct entire virtual mock-ups of airliners to identify potential design issues long before they reach the physical prototyping and testing phase.

Governments are also investing heavily in the technology. The US military has for years experimented with VR for training purposes. It is using VR to prepare soldiers for overseas deployments by allowing them to conduct highly-detailed “walkthroughs” of their planned real-world areas of operation – say, an Afghan village – long before their boots are on the ground in a combat zone.

In the 20-minute VR experience, Sir David Attenborough explores the Great Barrier Reef aboard the Triton, a state-of-the-art submersible

Only the beginning

Among the best-known pioneers of VR is award-winning documentary filmmaker Anthony Geffen, CEO and creative director of London-based Atlantic Productions. In April this year, Geffen’s Dive the Great Barrier Reef with [David] Attenborough in VR took viewers on an immersive trip into one of the world’s most fragile ecosystems. It became the first VR film to win a British Academy Film Award. The BAFTA is the British equivalent of America’s Oscar.

“We’re able to put people in places they never dreamed they’d be, and tell stories they never dreamed they’d be a part of. They could be part of a horror film. Actually in it. That’s never been possible before,” he tells Arabian Business during a recent visit in Dubai.

Though Geffen works in the arts, he has seen enough to realise how far-reaching the impact it could have on everything from education to healthcare. “There are so many other potentials that VR and AR can both deliver – and that’s actually a massive, massive market.”

By all accounts, the market that Geffen refers to is indeed massive, and expected to grow exponentially over the next few years. According to a recent forecast from International Data Corporation (IDC), AR and VR headsets are gaining momentum at a very strong pace. From just under 10 million units in 2016, sales are forecast to grow to nearly 100 million units by 2021. That would make for a five-year compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 57.7 percent.

In terms of spending, IDC’s Worldwide Semiannual Augmented and Virtual Reality Spending Guide forecasts that total outlay on AR and VR products will increase from $11.4bn in 2017, to a whopping $215bn in 2021 – achieving a CAGR of 113.2 percent. According to IDC, the Middle East and Africa accounted for about eight percent of global shipments in the second quarter of 2017, a figure which is projected to grow into double digits over the next five years.

And yet despite these impressive statistics, in Geffen’s view, the market is currently being held back by a lack of “landmark” productions in the VR field. “People really aren’t thinking cleverly enough. To me, it’s all about eyeballs.

I tell stories and I want people to watch them. If eyeballs are moving, or if I can attract other eyeballs that aren’t watching television, then that’s exciting,” he says.

Veteran broadcaster Sir David Attenborough

If done right, Geffen adds, VR and AR storytelling has the potential to attract new customers and bring added value to any number of entities, ranging from ministries of tourism to already well-known landmarks. “You must develop it in such a way that the story – who you’re meeting, what’s happening – makes you want to come back,” he notes. “It’s purely down to the power of the storytelling.”

As an example, Geffen points to a project that Atlantic did with London’s Science Museum where they were asked to do something that utilised VR, but with no real brief beyond that. “We worked with NASA and the [International] Space Station to create an experience where you’d get into the Soyuz Capsule as it falls to earth. It pretty much sold out, and created a real buzz.”

Another example: London’s Natural History Museum saw an increase of between 15 and 20 percent in ticket sales following a VR production about its exhibits.

“People wanted to see the real objects afterwards. Far from taking away from reality, I think it creates more interest,” Geffen adds, noting that the potential applications in a national tourism drive would be enormous.

With regards to the Middle East, Geffen notes that he sees “great appetite” and “a lot of interest” in VR and AR in the region, particularly in the UAE and Saudi Arabia.” He gazes at the view of Dubai’s ultra-modern skyline beyond the window. “As a city that prides itself on technology, I’m amazed there isn’t more of it here.”

VR in the classroom

One of the verticals leading today’s VR charge is education. In 2016, the UAE’s Ministry of Education announced a pilot programme to use VR headsets at 17 schools to help students explore scenarios and environments that would be difficult or impossible in real life, such as inside the International Space Station.

Among the most avid proponents of VR in the classroom is Steven Bambury, the head of digital learning and innovation at the Jumeirah English Speaking School (JESS), who was recently named one of the world’s top 100 VR ‘influencers’ by Onalytica, a digital and influencer marketing firm. A 17-year veteran of education, Bambury says that VR – which he expects will continue to be the stronger of the two mediums in the education sector – allows students to learn in a way that was never possible before.

Atlantic Productions CEO Anthony Geffen

“Let’s take ancient Rome. It’s not just an abstract element anymore; it’s suddenly life-size, to scale, and everything is where it would have been,” he says to explain VR’s practical applications. “Suddenly everything is a little more contextualised,” he says of the possibilities.

Bambury adds that he has also used virtual reality to let students experience Britain’s 1940s “Blitz” and the sinking of the Titantic in 1912; two events that would otherwise be difficult to truly comprehend from the safety of a Dubai classroom many decades later.

At the moment, Bambury says that many schools around the globe still consider VR and AR to be too much of an investment, but that perception is likely to change over the coming years amid the drive for greater demand from schools for devices. “We’re still at that point where it’s early adopters and innovators tinkering with it,” he says. “But it’s actually a fairly easy win when staff realise it’s quite simple to get into.”

Geffen, for his part, predicts that future classrooms will use VR and AR systems, supplemented by Artificial Intelligence (AI) to not only reinforce what is being taught, but also suggest what should be studied next. “Let’s say you were learning something about Egypt. It (AR/VR) would know roughly what you’re taking in, what you’ve looked at, what you’ve acknowledged,” he says. “For education that could be very valuable.”

Blurring the lines

According to IDC senior research manager Nabila Popal, AR sits “slightly” behind VR with 2.1 million AR headsets shipped globally in the second quarter of 2017.

“The reason for this is not that AR is less important, but rather, it is hard to achieve,” she says, noting that many consumers are likely to have their first AR experience via a mobile phone or tablet, rather than a dedicated headset.

Virtual and Augmented Reality will someday revolutionise the education industry

The world is only just beginning to scratch the surface of AR, according to Bambury, who predicts that in a few years the technology will become an integral part of life in many parts of the world, with its main benefit being its ability to interact with one’s environment – a capability that VR doesn’t have.

“It [AR] will integrate with everyday life. Your car will project your route, mapping it on a heads-up display on your [windshield], rather than having to look down occasionally at Google Maps,” he predicts. “You will have some sort of wearable device where you can look at a shop and the prices will come up, or the glass of the shop will do some sort of augmented reality.”

This seamless integration of technology with everyday life is what really excites Popal about and its potential to one day transform our habits. “AR allows you to still see the real world and be able to function in it. I can walk down the street, I can drive a car and I can interact with things around me in a safe way,” she says.

Beyond games

At the moment, experts say, the VR and AR industry continues to be consumer driven, with most people still associating the technology with gaming, which is, by far, the most widespread use so far. “This is where companies are focussed, because gaming and entertainment sells devices,” Bambury notes. “If you’re HTC or you’re Oculus, you’ve got a lot more chance of selling devices if you support Halo or Call of Duty type games. Zombies are always going to be a lot more popular than school rooms. There will always be that side of it.”

And yet the massive potential for technology to progress way beyond entertainment is imminent. As Popal sees it, this public perception seems to be on the cusp of change.

“There is huge potential in the commercial space, and that is where the real boom in this technology will come from. As use across different industries grows, the adoption rate will grow and drive shipments.”

Bambury sees VR’s impact on education

So although the technology is still very new and, like every innovation, will take some time to become more widespread “eventually it will become far more integrated into our lives as it is adopted across various consumer facing verticals and becomes the driving technology for businesses to interact with consumers by creating a mind-blowing experience,” she says. “That is when the amount of time spent in an AR or VR headset will increase for the average consumer.”

Geffen – who believes that VR is only about being used at about 10 percent of what it’s capable of – says that the future of these technologies, in any sector, depend on the availability of experiences that will make one want to return. “It’s like television. If I had Netflix and was only able to see one drama and not another for three weeks, that’s a problematic business model,” he says. “But the potential is now enormous. There are a lot of good intentions, but the projects really have to work.”

And when they so, a trip to the Soyuz space station might seem tame in comparison to what’s on offer.

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