The Future’s So Bright, I Gotta Wear a VR Headset

Virtual reality (VR) has been around for quite a while. But the tech now seems advanced and cheap enough to finally enter the mainstream.

By Zeid Nasser

Timbuk 3’s 1986 hit The Future’s So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades perfectly sums up how optimistic many tech companies are at the moment about the potential of VR technology. But rather than donning a pair of sunglasses to greet a sunnier tomorrow, we’re being asked to slip on one of the next generation VR headsets that are hitting the market.

One of these is the Oculus Rift, whose manufacturer was bought by Facebook back in 2014 after Mark Zuckerberg spotted what an exciting prospect VR tech represented. The headset comes with an OLED 1080p displa, a field of view greater than 100 degrees, integrated headphones for 3D audio effects, and rotational and positional tracking. The tracking system sits on your desk and pinpoints the entire room with infrared and LED lights to create a 3D space, allowing you to wear it while sitting, standing, or walking around the same room.

The Oculus Rift has generated excitement and opportunities for other manufacturers, with new VR-related products launched every month. In fact, eight of the top 10 tech companies in the world are working on a related product, which points to the emergence of a whole virtual reality ecosystem.

Samsung has signed a strategic partnership with Oculus to put their OLED screen technology in the Oculus Rift, while the Oculus software will in turn be used in the Samsung Gear VR platform. The Gear VR is expected to become one of the most owned headsets. Revealed at the Mobile World Congress in February, buyers can get a free Gear VR with the pre-order of a Galaxy S7 or S7 edge.

Another of the most publicized devices is the Microsoft HoloLens, which is a self-contained Augmented Reality headset that has just begun shipping to developers. Microsoft is also reaching out to others in the space, establishing a relationship with Oculus to bundle the Xbox One controller with the Rift and offering its game Minecraft on Oculus-powered devices. The gaming and educational potential of this tech cannot be ignored.

That’s why it’s not only about the devices. Some players are entering this space from a cloud-based angle, such as IBM whose Watson platform is one of the most advanced artificial intelligences in the world and is already powering VR experiences.

Microprocessor technology companies will also be heavily involved, and this is emphasized by the fact that Intel intends to be a an active player in this space using its RealSense technology to power positional tracking and finger tracking for mobile VR, and has released developer kit phones for that purpose.

Even PC manufactures can see the potential for their business. Hewlett Packard has created a VR-ready PC. While Nvidia, a leading creator of PC graphics cards and processors, has announced a new certification program to deliver a guide for consumers to decide if the hardware they’re looking to purchase is capable of providing a good VR experience or not. This is yet another example that there are various roles to be filled in the VR ecosystem.

Apple, the largest tech company in the world today, appears to be giving VR a look. Obviously, Apple’s secretive nature means we won’t hear about anything until it’s close to launch. But Apple recently hired VR researcher Doug Bowman, while the company’s CEO Tim Cook recently said he doesn’t think VR is a niche, and that it has some interesting applications.

Another candidate on this list whose business is related to Apple is Foxconn, the world’s largest electronics manufacturer, which is considering acquiring Sharp to obtain high performance OLED screens which it can then use to provide advanced VR experiences to Apple devices.

Google is currently toying with the idea of VR with its Cardboard platform, whereby you place your phone into a cardboard headset and run videos especially produced to demonstrate the power of VR.

More seriously though, Google is seeking to standardize the mobile hardware ecosystem for VR around Android to create the stability needed for strong VR support. Google has an in-house project called Tango that helps build technology to power the next generation of mobile VR experiences. Google has also invested in Magic Leap, a company in the AR space, currently valued at $4.5 billion despite never publicly displaying a product.

All this ongoing activity demonstrates that we are witnessing just the beginning of the VR industry. The race is well and truly on to grab market share and play a dominant role in defining the next generation of wearable devices and virtual experiences.