We have seen it all before: This will be the year of (blank). Pick any technology—augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) headsets, wearables, social networks, etc. The hype cycle starts three to five years early, and everyone—vendors, Wall Street and venture capitalists—is disappointed when last year was not the year.
It is early days for VR and even earlier for AR. Sales of VR headsets were graded disappointing after the close of the Christmas season and seemingly confirmed when BestBuy closed half of its in-store Oculus demo stations.
+ Also on Network World: Augmented reality is more than just holograms +
Google, Microsoft, Facebook (parent of the Oculus Rift), HTC (maker of the Vive), Sony and presumably Apple (if it ever gets its rumored AR device to market) define markets in billions of users or devices. No one can agree on when the 1 billion users or devices mark will be reached—2022, 2025, 2028 …
Jesse Schell, professor at the Carnegie Mellon University Entertainment Technology Center and CEO of Schell Games, predicted the 2016 VR forecast of 8 million consumer headsets back in March of 2016 at the Game Developer Conference (GDC). He was more reserved at GDC 2017 this year, though. No forecasts from him. His talk—Lessons Learned from a Thousand Virtual Worlds—explained how to design and build better VR games.
IDC released a forecast today of 100 million AR/VR units by 2021, growing from 10 million units in 2016 at a 56 percent rate. Facebook reached 1 billion users in 2015, seven years after reaching 100 million users in 2008. Perhaps VR and AR are as successful as Facebook, reaching 1 billion users seven years after it reaches 100 million, in a little over a decade from now in 2028.
3 things that will get AR/VR to 1 billion users faster
To repeat, it is early days. A few developments could shorten the time to 100 million units. The barriers are low, making this possible.
1. Mobile VR gets 6DoF
Six degrees of freedom, or 6DoF, means that as the headset wearer walks, bends up or bends or down, the field of view changes to reflect this. The feature is available only with the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift. Both are tethered to powerful PCs, a legacy of high-end VR’s video game roots. The PC’s powerful GPU and CPU are needed to render pixels at 120Hz with a latency of less than 20ms.
6DoF head tracking and positional tracking creates the as-if-you-were-there experience. Mobile VR headsets such as Google Daydream and Samsung Gear VR have 6DoF head tracking that changes the field of view when the wear’s head moves, but the relative positional tracking is static. Stand up and walk across the room, and the wearer does not move in virtual space.
The economics of mobile VR is much less expensive than the high-end headsets because they work on a mobile phone inserted into a $100 headset. Consumers need to buy a flagship phone such as the Google Pixel costing $700, but it is not much of a premium over a midrange phone, perhaps $300. The Rift and Vive cost a minimum of about $2,000, including the headset, hand controllers, and tethered PC, compared to a VR-ready smartphone and headset that costs incrementally $400 more than a midrange phone.
If hardware and software developments could bring full 6DoF to mobile phones and the as-if-you-were-there experience, the high-end VR would shift from the limited gamer enthusiast market to the consumer market, accelerating growth.
2. Leveraged industry research
VR and AR platforms are largely proprietary. The only commonality is the development tools at the very top of the stack, such as Unity and Unreal Engine, that developers use to author games and experiences.
The resurgence of the Mac in 2007 and 2008 was the result of Apple’s platform shift from a proprietary design. Apple changed to the Intel platform, putting the economies of scale of the PC market to work on its pricing and hardware innovation, alleviating Apple from proprietary R&D that did not differentiate.
Apple also incorporated single-user BSD Unix as the Mac’s operating system, bringing with it a rich tool chain for its internal and external developers, also alleviating Apple from much proprietary R&D. Now that the Mac is a PC running an open-source operating system with a proprietary UI, Apple can focus on beautiful system packaging and user features that differentiate the Mac.
Eliminating redundant R&D from the AR and VR makers P&L’s and engineering timelines and spreading R&D across the industry would reduce costs and accelerate increased capabilities. For example, each VR manufacturer has a different approach to controllers, and AR manufacturers have different approaches to the UI for interacting with the holograms projected into reality. These add cost and complexity. Lacking standardization, every AR and VR tool maker and content creator must adapt their designs and software for each platform.
3. A new end-to-end tool chain
The tool chain for developing content is incomplete. AR and VR are far behind other mature and related computer automation systems, such as Pixar’s toolchain for creating animated movies that is automated from storyboard to final cut and AutoDesk’s mechanical engineering, which automates the design of products through instructions for milling and molding machines to cut the parts. A similar AR and VR toolchain will emerge, but sooner would be better because it would accelerate the development and increase the diversity of content creation.