AR and VR now within reach

AR and VR are back in the news, but will this publicity translate in to meaningful AV projects? Paul Milligan canvasses opinion.

Although AR and VR are distinct technologies, as Jessica McElhone, Christie’s director of strategic markets, global market solutions points out ‘they are both part of the same continuum from a real environment to a virtual one’. 

Both technologies have existed for years, so why are we still writing about them? In the last 12 months a spate of developments has seen interest spike in both disciplines. This has led the pro AV world to reassess its relationship with AR and VR and we are now at the starting point of something (potentially) very big for our industry.  So how did we get to this point? 

Pokémon Go has been a media phenomenon this summer, and has forced everyone to reassess the capabilities (and reach) of AR.  The app, based on the popular Japanese children’s game from the 1990s, has been downloaded by more than 100 million people around the world in just two months, leading many to suggest this is AR’s ‘killer app’.  Alongside this we have seen the launch of a range of VR headsets at affordable prices for the first time; units such as Oculus Rift and HTC Vive (sub €1000) and budget entries like Google Cardboard and Samsung Gear VR (sub €100). 

Sales of Rift, Gear and Vive are expected to hit 10 million units in 2016 alone. Later this year sees the launch of a VR camera rig by budget brand GoPro called Omni.  Thought to be around the €5,000 mark, this now means the filming and viewing of AR/VR can be covered with only a modest outlay of funds. Although these products are aimed at the general public, recent history has shown us that there is now huge crossover (the iPad, 4K displays etc) between the consumer and the pro AV world.  

Outside of individual products, both AR and VR are growing fast, according to data from Digi-Capital, the annual revenue forecast of VR alone is to rise from less than $1bn today to $30bn by 2020.  

We spoke to a range of those involved in AR and VR and the mood, encapsulated by Peter Schlueer, co-founder and president of WorldViz, a VR software and hardware provider, was upbeat.  “We have made great leaps already, headsets have come down in price by a factor of 100, but they are still bulky and the visual quality needs to improve before we see adoption the size of cellphones.  I think we will see hand tracking and motion tracking improve but we are still in a massive stage of revolution and growth.  We are at a tiny beginning spike of a curve that has massive growth potential. I’ve been in the industry for over a decade and we are a time like no other.” 

Theirry Ollivier, a veteran of the AV industry who has held roles at both Barco and projectiondesign, has spent the last six months investigating the AV and VR opportunities for the AV market.  His early findings suggest there is still work to be done. “Out of the 70 companies of different sizes and industries I’ve contacted, over half had heard about VR, and managers had a minimum understanding of it. They also believed their company would use it in the future but did not have it in their roadmap or investment plans.”

Will Case, the brand experience director for integrator Sarner AV, is keen to use VR and AR in projects, but has reservations about the technology as it is now, and finds it difficult to make a convincing business case for it everytime; “We’ve talked to lots of people about it, but the difficulty is people are leading with the technology and not the story.  We’ve spoken to the advertising world about it and everyone seems to be talking about it because it is cool, but no one is investing any money in it.  When you make an advert millions of people will see it, with VR only one person can see it at a time.”

Are we at the point where clients are asking integrators for AR and VR projects specifically, or is it something that now just resides in the general AV mix of products? “Everyone is asking for it, without knowing how to use it. Our job is to explain to the client when it’s relevant or not.  We’ve found it’s often better to make a little film about an AR project, than the AR experience itself, as its still in its infancy,” says Case.  

Christophe Castagnera, head of connected experience at experiential agency Imagination says that once clients get to see it for themselves they are often convinced of its worth. “They try it and then want to create experiences in VR as they are so impressed.  All of them see it as an essential part of their marketing experience portfolio.  Some are seeing the potential for it to be become a fully-fledged channel in its own right, as big as smartphones.”

So if clients are interested in AR and VR, what sectors are they coming from? Traditionally VR appealed to automotive, aerospace, energy or science and this is very much still the case, but things are expanding.  “Clients come from all sectors,” says Castagnera, “Design, r&d, marketing, retail and sales. AR and VR have a wide range of applications and use cases, and it’s not just for entertainment or brand communication. There’s a future that will involve AR and VR for business meetings, medical interactions and education.”

Others we spoke to agreed the scope of clients was almost limitless, “AR and VR by essence allows us to simulate situations which are too costly, too complicated or too risky to create in real life,” says Ollivier.

So if hardware costs have come down to a level that won’t make purchasing departments go blue in the face, what opportunities does AR/VR offer to AV integrators and consultants? “VR and AR allows people to explore things they couldn’t before, to capture things you can’t see on TV, and to give you a privileged view only a few can see,” says Case. This not only applies to visitor attractions or simulation, but also to the corporate world says Schlueer; “The possibility for people to meet in a virtual space and collaborate holds enormous promise.   We are all social beings, that’s the reason cellphones have been so successful is that they connect people, and that’s what AR and VR can do.”

Because we are at the beginning of the spike Schlueer refers to earlier, the AV industry could benefit from being brave says Ollivier.  “This might be the one opportunity for AV people to take a lead in IT convergence, as it’s brand new for all of us.”

It has been mentioned a couple of times already, but could AR and VR allow a new way to collaborate, or will it always remain a relatively singular pursuit? “If you look at how a platform like Facebook evolved, from text to photos to videos, the natural extension of that is to have VR experiences,” says Schlueer.  The meeting/collaboration space could hold the key to ensuring AR and VR become a group activity.

“Social VR will allow people to be in the same VR space, talking, moving, and interacting together. Someone could be in London and China collaborating.  The ability is also there to have a large number of people in a social VR theatre show, its mind-blowing where this can go,” says Castagnera.   “The question is how to develop the tools, the interoperability, the security, and the user interfaces which make it cost efficient and a preferred solution in the corporate environment.  I have no doubt about adoption. The question is how fast and who will grasp the opportunity in the B2B market.  When heavyweights like Microsoft and Google jump in, I’m sure Cisco and others won’t stand still either,” says Ollivier.

Putting reservations about the resolution of the headsets aside, it seems that we are nearly there on the hardware side of things in AR and VR. So are we now waiting, similar to the 4K experience, for content/software to catch up? “If there is something to be learn from the complete failure of 3D in the home and corporate markets, it’s that hardware without content is useless and only intuitive use of technology accelerates adoption,” says Ollivier. However he is certain thousands of AR and VR professional developers will appear in the next two years, citing the fact that more than 200,000 developers had already registered with Oculus Rift by the end of 2015.  

If more people are producing AR and VR content, logic dictates that more content should drive adoption.  But just how easy and cost-effective is it to put together new content yourself?  “Filming is easy,” says Wise. “People need to understand how hard it is to put it all back together.” He cites a recent VR project Sarner undertook for the FIVB (Fédération Internationale De Volleyball) to showcase volleyball/beach volleyball at the Rio Olympic Games this summer.  To get the footage it wanted Sarner used a £60,000 Nokia Ozo 360 camera. “You come to the end of a day’s filming and you have 2TB of footage.  We are shooting at 18K, so you have to handle an extraordinary amount of data, so it’s not a conventional edit.”

There are other issues when filming VR too says Wise.  “It has a lot of limitations because it is a very fixed view, and because you are stuck in one focal length.  You have to capture moments, it’s a bit like being a nature photographer, you have to put the camera down and run away.  It’s like filming in Super8, you don’t know what you have until you develop it.” 

For those put off by that, help might be at hand from Thierry Ollivier; “I’m looking at how to provide a comprehensive €30,000 package which would allow a marketing director to get started with a first AR/VR application that could used for a tradeshow or in a showroom and hopefully be rolled out in further locations to be used by the salesforce and the clients. When this happens, having serious money is no longer an issue.”

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