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Category: Digital Retail

2017: The Year Reality Becomes Less Virtual

Written by Gary Towning, Executive VP, Digital Services

Virtual Reality: Its Perils and Promise

“In the old days of Virtual Reality,” is not a phrase that many people can use. But there was a first wave of VR, and some of the challenges we faced then are only now being overcome. In the summer of 1991, my partners and I launched the first full-immersion 360 degree VR system available to the public in Europe at the Rock Garden in Convent Garden, London. The Virtuality system had heavy headsets with optics at 640x320 resolution, head and hand tracking using Polhemus magnetic tracking with a delay that could induce motion sickness. 

virtual reality 1

(That's me in the grey shirt)

Each game experience was five minutes per person but required another five minutes of explaining instructions, mounting wires in a small backpack and attaching headsets with a vice-like head crank. We yelled instructions as the participant got lost in cyberspace, shooting pterodactyls on a platform in space. The public was really wowed. We received national TV and news coverage and took branded systems on an EU-wide tour for Leo Burnett and DDB UK’s clients, Smirnoff and Unilever. Our firm, ZONA, enjoyed three years of notoriety but the experience could never match the public’s eventual expectations. Even the technical romanticism of the movie Virtuosity could not keep the interest going and the whole technology craze fizzled to a halt.

In March 2012, Oculus Rift (now Facebook) launched a Kickstarter fund for their VR developer kit and sold 4–5 units per minute for a $300 pledge. Suddenly, VR was on the horizon once again. Then, in the summer of 2014, Google launched the Google Cardboard SDK and VR went mainstream.

virtual reality 2

What once took my entire VR team and a $300,000 Silicon Graphics engine, can now be had for the price of a phone and a free Samsung Gear VR or Google Daydream headset ($199). Though a lot has changed, some things have not. We have super high resolution screens, near real CGI-based imagery, faster screen refreshing and tracking with much lighter headsets. But the setups for full 360 interactive immersion and the physical adjustments for jumping in and out of cyberspace still feels complicated and slow. Plus, the experience often still comes with guys (or friends) who shout at you not to move too far or you’ll hit a physical wall.

MR versus VR

While much of the focus has been on virtual reality this past year, the notion of mixed reality is starting to become a part of the wearable conversation. Virtual Reality puts you “virtually there.” Mixed Reality, however, places the experience “virtually here.”

virtual reality 3

Unlike virtual reality, which drops us into fully-fledged computer worlds that are explorable via 360-degree head tracking and room-scale sensors, mixed reality blends the virtual and real worlds. The dream of true mixed reality offers users the chance to interact with completely virtual objects—offering a whole new kind of experience that I think will be much more interesting to brands and advertisers.

I have to agree with this comment from Wareable.com, "Everything is heading towards mixed reality, when mixed reality is done correctly, VR becomes a sub-segment of mixed reality."

The players are a mix of known and new firms. Microsoft is the first big player with the HoloLens at $3,000. It’s a steep price for a headset with a very limited field of view. Then, there’s the mysterious Magic Leap. Little is known about this tech, which projects virtual images onto the user's retina via its photonic lightfield chip. But it has raised a huge amount of funding with Peter Jackson on board. Intel has also jumped on the bandwagon with Project Alloy, a mixed reality headset that resembles the Samsung Gear VR but includes motion sensors and cameras to "merge" real and virtual elements together. Meta 2 is another headset that's similar to Microsoft's headgear. Meta 2 may not have the most perfect experience, but being able to reach out and pull a shoe from an Amazon webpage and see it in 3D right in front of you sounds impressive.


virtual reality 3

Tim Cook of Apple is on the same bandwagon. "There's virtual reality and there's augmented reality—both of these are incredibly interesting," Cook said on ABC News' Good Morning America. "But my own view is that augmented reality is the larger of the two, probably by far." A recent patent shows that Apple is pursuing a pair of smart specs that utilize the iPhone much like the Samsung Gear VR. Presumably, this would use the device's camera to show the real world on screen and be able to insert virtual elements on top.

What’s coming

Take a look at Kickstarter and you’ll find a cardboard answer to fully interactive mixed reality or augmented reality. No $3,000 headset here. It’s called ZapBox and costs $30 including shipping! From their KIckstater page, “ZapBox combines physical components with advanced software to provide magical Mixed Reality experiences. Insert your smartphone into the ZapBox headset, start the ZapBox app, and step into a whole new world of interactive content.” The kit also included controllers to manipulate objects.

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A functional prototype of the ZapBox MR Kit. The version you receive will be far prettier, have more than four point codes, and absolutely NOT come bundled with an iPhone. 

Below is the headset lineup as it currently stands. But knowing how things change when Apple gets involved in a category, you’ll probably be able to throw this away by the end of the year.

virtual reality chart

Full immersion VR still has its place for gamers and in deep educational experiences, but 2017 will be the year Mixed Reality (or Augmented Reality) really starts to build momentum. I think brands and consumers will find this a much more attractive experience.

Thinking of using Virtual or Mixed Reality for your brand? Let’s talk about what Trone Brand Energy can do for you.  

Gary Towning, Executive Vice President, Digital Services

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