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Innovate UK VR & AR Showcase Review

Profile image for Andy Headington

A few weeks ago I attended a showcase event run by Innovate UK, the day was long but allowed dozens of tech companies from around the UK to pitch their Virtual and Augmented Reality ideas to various organisations.

The sessions were interesting as they were in effect real world pitches to big businesses in public, albeit fairly concise, with successful companies being notified within a few days of their presentation. It was a novel way for these events to be run in that it opened up the audience to lots of ideas at once as well as giving insight into what the expert panel was interested in, something which often remains a mystery with events similar to this.

Throughout the day, there were several presentations from companies looking to get more attention in the VR/AR space who offered hardware solutions to problems; nearly companies offered some sort of platform to host their ideas on while a few offered up use of third party solutions such as Soundcloud.

Here are my main take outs from the event.

THE VR MARKET IS VERY FRAGMENTED

While the VR and AR content was just that; businesses pitching their VR & AR ideas to businesses in a live environment, there was an obvious lack of standardisation across the industry. many business chose to address their VR problem from an angle of developing an app. Some chose to deliver content through the web. Some chose to support Google Cardboard only while some chose to support Oculus Rift only. Many companies made use of hardware such as Leapmotion while others had prototyped and were looking to take to market their own devices such as Glove One.

The only near ubiquitous tool I took from the day was use of Unity, the gaming engine which allows for 3D worlds to be created and then experienced using one of the many VR headsets available.

Due to the infancy of the market and almost zero market penetration that VR devices currently have, this is hardly surprising but it does pose a problem for anyone starting out in this ‘world’. Like app developers a few years ago having to potentially support iPhone, Android, Blackberry, Windows phones and others, it takes a while for the market mature to a point where there are a handful of leaders. Whether this is going to be Oculus, Samsung Gear, Google Cardboard, Microsoft Hololens, HTC Vive or something else remains very much to be seen. The news that Samsung is going to charge less than $100 for its product which is nearly a third of OR is certainly a marker in the sand.

THE AR MARKET STILL HAS HUGE POTENTIAL

I’ve heard a few times recently that Augmented Reality (AR) is old hat and doesn’t have much of a future. I actually think that the opposite is true. The opportunity for AR is huge and just as big as VR in the coming years. Should the day ever come where we end up walking around our office or towns with phones strapped to our faces, then AR would, in many cases, be a better solution. Augmented Reality allows the real world to be displayed while overlaying digital information. Practically, this has many more uses than VR in that it is less intrusive and offers the user a view of their usual world. One of the best examples of AR given in the day was a company called Solius who offered up a construction solution to Network Rail for fault finding within buildings using a Daqiri headset to ‘see through walls’ and locate where issues may be within buildings. This novel and useful way to present information to engineers and facility managers alike would reap huge benefits if it were to be rolled out in the coming years.

THERE ARE VERY FEW COMPANIES WHO HAVE EXPERIENCE IN VR OR AR

Throughout the day, there were nearly 20 or so businesses from around Europe presenting their ideas and approaches to the challenges set by the businesses working with Innovate UK; John Lewis, Network Rail, Pearson Learning, Kings College London and Columbia Records. In the main, the presenters gave good accounts of themselves and the solutions within the small timeframe available (10 minutes max for presentation and Q&A).

The thing that struck me having been in the digital design & build world for over a decade is how new this world is. Those in the digital agency world now think we are in a maturing industry after it only really being around for I’d say 15 years in any real anger. However, those leading the VR world with the newer devices that I’ve discussed have only really had a few years maximum in the market. Unsurprisingly there is a lack of any major experience of investment, certainly at the level that we’re at so the most you can expect from a good VR company is a few years experience and dozen or so projects under their belt. Any company looking seriously at the VR world for new ideas and opportunities next year once all of the headsets start to become more prevalent, is going to be taking a reasonable risk on their VR team of choice. Whilst I might be accused of being a bit harsh on the market, that was my perception from an outsider perspective. 

THERE ARE STILL MANY TECHNOLOGY ISSUES THAT HAVE YET TO BE PROPERLY SOLVED

Connectivity is obviously a huge issue when it comes to making VR work well. Whilst most of the VR experiences that are currently available in the entertainment market are limited to stand alone apps in certain worlds, such as medical, it is mission critical. The slightest delay in carrying out operations remotely is the difference between success and failure.

Similar latency issues also face hardware manufacturers. For experiences to be truly immersive response times have to be on a par with the human body. At this point, you start measuring in milli or nanoseconds in terms of responsive times from sensors or inputs. Anything more than say 20 Ms and the user will notice the delay and it will make it hard to believe what you are seeing, touching, smelling etc.

These issues also extend themselves to the hardware of VR headsets. Whilst there is a lot to love about VR solutions such as Google Cardboard, the current reality is that the hardware is still some way away from being at a realistic state to give the Lawnmower Man type of experience. I learnt through speaking to several people at the event that despite the significant hype around Oculus Rift, this also faces similar hardware problems. If you didn’t know (like me) OR actually needs a hardware connection to work such as  laptop and if that machine doesn’t have the latest graphic cards and drivers installed, it will impact the processing power and thus quality of the picture you see.

To me this is a big deal for the success of OR as there is only likely to be a limited % of even the early adopters who are likely to have the specs needed to really make OR sing. Sure, this is all a game of sitting and waiting for technology to catch up which it undoubtedly will but again will no doubt see VR tick along in the background for quite some time before it reaches the mass market. Where VR has a real and practical use, such as in medicine or construction then I’m sure the right hardware will be available.

FINAL THOUGHTS

2016 will be a big year for the world of VR in the mind of the mainstream public. Posterchild for the VR world Oculus Rift has got a lot of weight on its shoulders as I expect it will be the way the press accesses this new and exciting world. I’ve yet to see anyone on TV with a Google Cardboard on their face but have no doubt that when it launches next year in the UK there will be much frivolity on news programs where people try it out. My big concern for Oculus is that it will be too limited in terms of accessibility to mass market and potentially even early adopters and others like Samsung will be able to get market share quicker. For those looking to get into the market next year, keeping tabs on which devices pick up the biggest growth will be paramount to ensure maximum reach.

The big players in the market Microsoft, Samsung, Oculus and others will undoubtedly lead the way in this area but I expect a lot of smaller studios to pop up to provide the content that will make the hardware really sing. Where all of this content sits also remains a mystery and this was one thing that wasn’t really covered in the showcase event. With so many players in the market and so many routes for audiences to go down, it’ll be interesting to see whether established stores like Google Play or Xbox Store will be the primary routes for discovery or again, new routes come to prominence. I suspect it’ll be the former.

While I’m focussing a lot here on the end consumer market which I believe is going to be very gaming led, I expect there to be some great growth of both VR and AR in the commercial area. The practical use of VR and other similar technologies has great applications in many industries and in areas like medicine, there are potentially massive benefits for remote working and lifesaving transferring of skills and knowledge. With useful tactile feedback being not too far away, I expect to hear stories of lives being saved using VR and AR technology in the not too distant future.

 

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