Through the looking glass

Through the looking glass

Virtual reality may be considered mainly a preoccupation for youngsters obsessed with computer games but the technology can have far more meaningful applications for people of any age, says Paul Markham, portfolio manager at Newton.

VR and AI

Imagine sauntering through leafy French boulevards enjoying the sights and sounds of Paris in the Spring, gazing in awe at the Taj Mahal on a personal guided tour, or playing a full round of golf in perfect weather conditions – all without leaving the comfort of your own living room.

These are just some of the experiences sophisticated virtual reality (VR) systems already seek to replicate and whose developers hope could soon be delivered via the most ‘immersive’ and believable artificial sensory experiences short of real life participation ever created.

After years of relatively slow but steady development, recent media events such as the release of Steven Spielberg’s VR based adventure movie ‘Ready Player One’ have driven a surge of new interest in both virtual reality and its popular but less immersive offshoot, augmented reality (AR). Low cost viewing platforms such as Google Cardboard have also increased both the attractiveness of VR and the awareness of its potential benefits.

A market that was once largely the preserve of dedicated computer gamers has increasingly moved to embrace sectors as diverse as product marketing, education and lifesaving training and is rapidly gaining traction as a serious investment prospect.

Magic Leap, a US start-up company developing a new generation of ‘mixed reality’ viewing goggles, has already attracted US$1.9bn in investment from a variety of high-profile technology companies including Google and Alibaba1 Such is the buzz surrounding the project, that some researchers have said its innovation could ultimately be as significant as the birth of the internet or even signal “the death of reality”.

At a more prosaic level, sector analyst Greenlight Insights predicts global VR revenues could reach US$75bn by 2021 from just over an estimated US$7bn in 2017.  According to analyst Orbis Research, overall global VR revenue is expected to grow at 54.84 CAGR from 2018 to 2023.  

Recent years have seen VR partly overshadowed by AR – as typified by its successful use in the Pokemon Go gaming craze of 2016 and its application in social media. According to a 2017 report from specialist research provider Zion Market Research, global augmented reality market share was valued at around US$3.33bn in 2015 and is expected to reach approximately US$133.78bn in 2021.

Nevertheless, while acknowledging the relative strength of the AR proposition and forecast growth in this market, Newton’s Paul Markham believes the most significant developments in this field are yet to come and will most likely centre on VR.

“We believe VR holds the strongest potential for really game changing visual and sensory experiences. While the world seemed to go crazy for AR at the launch of Pokemon Go, it remains something of a halfway house which involves users without being really immersive. VR offers the potential to create deeper more meaningful, powerful and realistic experiences,” he says.

Wide uses

Citing potential uses ranging from virtual tourism experiences to marketing, healthcare and other areas, Markham adds that the creation of increasingly realistic artificial sensory environments could hold appeal for a vast range of consumers. The VR experience is already extending beyond purely visual stimulus to embrace smell and taste. In April, a Future Tech Now exhibition in London showcased the ‘Vocktail’ – a virtual reality cocktail that uses VR to manipulate the user’s sense of smell, touch and taste to simulate the experience of drinking a real cocktail.

Technical challenges

While VR presents exciting potential, its development has not been without some technical hitches. Many have found the experience of viewing VR landscapes through headsets distinctly underwhelming and the common ‘lag’ between the virtual world and its viewer’s movements can make some users nauseous.

According to Markham, VR designers are working hard to eradicate such problems but still have some way to go to perfect their viewing systems.

“In terms of sophistication, the technology is getting better. But the manufacturers have so far not been able to entirely eradicate the slight lag inherent between physical movement and the viewing experience. This essentially confuses the senses and can actually make some people feel sick. This lag is still evident in even some of the most expensive VR headsets. That said the technology is improving and I suspect manufacturers will get there in the end,” he adds.

Despite this drawback, Markham believes VR continues to hold positive investment potential and has an exciting future ahead.

“While established pioneers of this market continue to refine their offering – particularly in markets such as Japan – others are also looking at this area and we definitely see an exciting future for VR from an investment standpoint. Its interaction in other areas such as medicine and 3D printing could also have exciting potential for areas such as medical training and testing,” he says.

At an educational level, Markham adds that VR could be very useful for teaching subjects such as geography, giving pupils access to highly realistic virtual environments they can interact with and learn more about. He also believes VR could play a major role in new forms of retail marketing.

“Despite some ethical concerns, the use of VR in so-called neuromarketing – which applies the principles of neuroscience to marketing research, studying consumers’ cognitive responses to marketing stimuli also appears to hold some promise. In the retail clothing sector facilities such as ‘virtual changing rooms’ can now allow viewers to change their apparel through a VR viewing portal and are just one example of VR application that could support a much wider range of marketing initiatives in the future,” he concludes.

  1. 1 Fortune. This Secretive Augmented Reality Firm Just Raised Another $502 Million. 18 October 2017.