By Dr. Yue Fei, CTO and Cofounder of uSens
2017 will be a pivotal year for virtual and augmented reality, given rather precarious positioning in the trough of disillusionment on the famed “hype cycle.” Industry predictions are starting to grow lofty again, with the most recent IDC study claiming that AR and VR headset shipments will approach 100 million in the next 5 years. VR/AR funding is at an all-time high. And the number of active users is forecast to reach 171 million by 2018.
But does any of that mean the long dark night is over? Not just yet. We’re going to be disappointed if we expect the industry to continue growing unabated. The promise of AR/VR may be widely understood by the general public, but that doesn’t necessarily make it a mainstream technology.
Right now, the industry is still plagued by user nausea, not to mention a lack of content and affordability issues.
The knight in shining virtual armor, for the near term, will be smartphone-based VR platforms. With their greater ease of use, lower cost, and wider range of games and applications, Mobile VR is like the “gateway drug” that will give way to mass adoption. Eventually.
There are a few big players in Mobile VR already: Google, LG, and Lenovo. But given that there are approximately 2 billion active mobile smartphones in the world capable of providing AR/VR content, we should expect more mobile makers to jump on the bandwagon and come out with their own devices and applications soon. Mobile VR presents a much lower cost-of-entry for consumers, and much less risk for manufacturers.
Naysayers will point out that current smartphones just aren’t built to handle the intense computational load that VR requires, and they’re right. Most legacy mobile devices are still apt to kick into overdrive and overheat while running a sim, which puts a time limit on any VR fun. But chip makers and smartphone manufacturers are already stepping up their game: 2017 is the year we’ll see VR-friendly devices that don’t bake as easily and are designed to handle the additional processing.
Even with state of the art mobile devices distributed by the millions across the world, if there’s no content to run on them, VR won’t latch on. Some developers have taken the plunge and created crowd favorites (à la Pokémon Go), but we still haven’t seen the “killer app.” At this point, I don’t know that there will be one. We might just see content growth via user engagement campaigns from healthcare, social, and enterprise applications. Consumers often wait until “the timing is finally right” to adopt a new technology. Such timing is rarely tied directly to one event, but rather a collection of events that eventually collect enough weight to tip the scale. VR content in myriad forms will be required to supply that substance. Meeting (and then exceeding) consumer expectation will depend heavily on the available ways users can immerse themselves into the content and interact with it.
Which leads me to another hurdle: There are some basic human-computer interaction problems that the industry must address this year. The ability to employ familiar interfaces — seamlessly scroll, tap, or type to navigate your way through a virtual realm — would make a world of difference. Until recently, natural gesture and position tracking have been a challenge in AR/VR, but the industry is rising to the challenge: HTC has years of investment in external trackers and the Oculus Rift will eventually deploy hands-free control. There is nothing yet on the market that successfully combines mobile 3D hands-free tracking AND robust head position tracking in AR/VR, but we’re working on it.
Inside the AR/VR echo chamber, it’s easy to think that the public is ready to fully embrace our technology. But it’s still early days. Virtual reality is not for everyone, and there are going to be many more unforeseen obstacles to overcome as the sector matures. For those of us founding this entirely new industry, a clear focus on known issues as we pass beyond hype and into certainty will sustain us through 2017 and beyond.