The Future of Virtual Reality

Lynn Bizri, Jan 02 2017

The virtual reality market could be worth $30 billion by 2020, according to Tech advisory firm Digi-Capital, and 171 million people could be using VR hardware and software worldwide by 2018, according to research firm KZero. Virtual Reality has been advertised as the ‘next big thing’ for the past few years, yet it is only thanks to recent advancements in technology that VR has been able to reach such a wide range of mainstream consumers and fields.

In the MENA region, Virtual Reality (VR) is expected to become a billion dollar niche according to Deloitte. Experts expect the MENA VR technology growth to be driven by several factors that include: MENA companies focusing on delivering innovative products and services that meet the demands of regional customers, increased pressure to reduce operational costs due to the decline in oil prices and lower acquisition costs, and greater accessibility to VR technologies and expertise. Looking forward, VR is set to transform a variety of domains, ranging from education to healthcare, yet most notably gaming, marketing and film. 

From Fantasy to Reality
While VR has been expanding into a variety of fields, gaming continues to be one of the more primary and near-term uses. According to industry sources, the estimated MENA computer gaming market is currently around US$1.5 billion and is forecast to grow three-fold by 2020, the majority of which will come from the GCC region. With all the tools and technology needed to build immersive 3D worlds available in the gaming industry, more and more gaming companies and studios are jumping on the VR bandwagon and developing VR games. Lebanon-based independent game studio Game Cooks will soon be releasing their first VR game, HOVR, a 3D racing game for Gear VR. The game, which revolves around a city hacker racing other bots on a hover board through the city, was featured at the 2016 Google Play Indie Game Festival in San Francisco and landed among the 15 finalists.

Yet despite the increasing popularity of VR gaming, one of the biggest barriers to growth is the cost of VR setups, headsets and devices. Oculus Rift, the first modern VR headset, costs around $600, whereas HTC’s Vive costs around $800, and neither can operate smoothly without a powerful computer. Moreover, Sony’s recently released accessory ‘PlayStation VR’, which costs $400 if gamers already own a PS4, is slightly more affordable and accessible yet offers a significantly lower quality VR experience, which is also the case for the cheaper smartphone-powered Google Cardboard and Samsung Gear VR.

Nevertheless, VR gaming is picking up pace extremely fast and undergoing continual change. With advancements in technology, increased production of VR devices/games and more accessible parts, VR headsets will soon be smaller, more powerful and more affordable for all.

Creating Experiential Journeys
Virtual reality is also on its way to transforming the way movies and video content are viewed and produced. Giga Works, a VR film studio based in Dubai is specialized in adapting real-time motion footage into immersive 360-degree experiences and has produced VR footage that includes go-karting, a Ski Dubai VR Experience, a ride with Lebanese Rally Champion Joseph Hindi, and a trip down the water flume of Dubai’s Wild Wadi Water Park among several others. However, while showing the power of VR in an interactive or gaming experience is relatively easy, filming a 360-degree VR movie or video footage is an entirely different story.

360 degree filming offers viewers the chance to step into and become completely immersed in the footage and choose the way they view it, and while the benefits are obvious – a more immersive movie experience means a more compelling story – moviemakers must overcome several hurdles in the process of creating such a movie, from filming to post-production. To begin with, since spectators can view the movie’s scenes at their own discretion and from the angle they choose, directors cannot ensure that their attention will be focused on where the action is and will have to incorporate visual or audio cues to guide them. Another major challenge lies in setting up and working in a 360 scene, as directors have to adopt a completely different way of thinking, editing and directing.

There is a good chance VR will transform the film industry, modernize traditional cinema and replace 3D glasses with VR headsets, yet even those enthusiastic about the possibility aren’t exactly sure how (and if) it will take place.  If harnessed correctly, VR could signal the end to traditional cinema as we know it and while VR will be a huge step forward in terms of narrative immersion, film’s traditional social aspect – sharing a theater with others – is going to be hard to break away from.

Transforming Traditional Marketing
In addition to gaming and moviemaking, VR is set to transform the way companies do marketing. Unlike traditional marketing, VR allows marketers far more freedom and room for innovation in the creativity of their campaigns. By combining VR with digital marketing strategies such as experiential marketing and storytelling, brands can create unique experiences and fully engage their consumers in a way no other medium can. Moreover, the possibilities are endless; customers can experience any product, theme or situation, all without direct physical contact.

Many brands have already started to join the virtual realm, using VR to create unique experiences and capture their consumer’s full attention in their marketing campaigns and schemes. Earlier this year, Etihad Airways released its highly anticipated 360-degree virtual reality campaign film starring Nicole Kidman, marking the first time a Hollywood actor stars in a fully immersive VR short. The five-minute campaign titled ‘Reimagine’ immerses viewers in a fully experiential journey following Nicole Kidman through one of its new Airbus A380s flying between New York and Abu Dhabi.

Dubai’s Jumeirah also developed an innovative digital platform in partnership with Google that uses 360-degree video, 3D sound, playful interactions and exclusive hotspots to bring to life Jumeirah’s 23 properties around the world. Jumeirah Inside used Google Cardboard to create a fully immersive VR experience and also integrated the discovery and booking portions of the user journey with a booking engine directly inside the platform.

Yet despite the growing enthusiasm and success of VR, great VR content is still rare at the moment. However, as customers’ yearning for amazing immersive stories grows, brands will have to provide unique, enjoyable and beautiful experiences to make a hit and keep up.

The New Breakthrough in Medicine
Healthcare is becoming one of the biggest adopters of virtual reality, and is currently the number two largest market for VR technology, according to the latest study conducted by Goldman Sachs. From surgery simulators, to treating patients and training surgeons/dentists, VR has found its way into several medical arenas, impacting both patients and physicians. The immersive technology has not only allowed healthcare professionals to learn new skills in a safe 3D environment, but is also being used along medical tests to diagnose medical conditions and help reduce paranoia, phobias, and PTSD.

In April, cancer surgeon at the Royal London Hospital, Shafi Ahmed, live streamed an operation in VR using software developed at his startup Medical Realities. More than 50,000 people worldwide were immersed in the procedure in real time and could watch the operation from any angle they choose. In Dubai, a VR research project is currently underway at the University of Wollogong’s Simulation and Smart Systems Research Center. The project is a haptic, audio-enabled VR simulator and research tool called VirtuNav that aids people with visual impairment by immersing them in a 3D computerized model of a real-life indoor location with the aim of improving their spatial awareness and memory mapping and enabling them to comfortably and readily explore and interact with unfamiliar environments. Finally, Proximie, co-founded by Lebanese doctor Nadine Hachach-Haram, is a software that enables surgeons to provide surgical help from wherever they are in the world, all through the screen of an iPad. The software has already been used to lead two operations in the Gaza strip from surgeon Dr. Ghassan Abu Sitta’s base in Beirut.

Although virtual reality in healthcare is still in its early days, according to research and consulting firm IndustryARC, augmented and virtual reality in healthcare is predicted to generate $2.54 billion globally by 2020. In the near future, the healthcare industry will see more virtual operation rooms with simulations of real-life scenarios, virtual modeling of organs and human anatomy for diagnostic medicine and the use of VR to cure clinically significant phobias. With recent and continuing advancements in VR technology and its increasing adoption, VR is set to change the way doctors work, improve hospital experiences and level of care received by patients worldwide, and eventually may save lives.

Re-defining the Classroom
Education is yet another area that is adopting virtual reality, and according to a GfK (a market research company) survey commissioned by Samsung, 85% of teachers agreed that virtual reality would have a positive effect on their pupils. In addition to helping students better understand difficult learning concepts, VR technologies increases students’ retention by allowing them to experience course content in a fun, interactive and engaging way that increases retention.

One example of a VR educational application is The World of Comenius, educational software that employs a Leap Motion controller and specially adapted Oculus Rift DK2 headsets to show people things that weren’t possible before like exploring atoms, swimming in cells, or meeting people from history and exploring the environment they lived in. Another is the Pioneers Expeditions program, launched by Google last year, which provides schools with kits that contain everything teachers need to take their classes on synchronized virtual school trips. Virtual Reality is also starting to play a role in distance learning, with professors delivering lectures in VR, and certificate programs delivered entirely in VR, such as the LEAD Certificate Program offered by the Stanford School of Business. 

Today only a few schools and districts have adopted virtual reality technology, yet there has been a significant increase in companies dedicated to supplying schools with educational curriculum/content, teacher training, and technological tools for VR-based instruction in the classroom. As VR technologies advance steadily and become more mainstream and accessible, they are bound to transform the ways in which people teach, learn, engage with others, and experience the world at large. Soon education will evolve from books and pencils to the use of immersive technology, blending together the best of the real world and the virtual world to deliver knowledge and understanding. 

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