Why does the VR industry think 2016 is its year? It's the hardware, stupid

Smartphones, not headsets driving the market


In 1994 this hack had his first taste of virtual reality, shooting pterodactyls in a blocky polygon world, and was assured by the vendor that 1995 would be the year VR really took off.

The same thing was promised for 2000, 2004, 2010, and again for 2014 when Oculus burst onto the scene. Now some are proclaiming it'll be 2016, and at the Goldman Sachs technology and internet conference in San Francisco several companies have been explaining why.

"It's the hardware, specifically the Samsung VR," Matt Bell, founder of Matterport, told El Reg. "Once you get it down to the size where you can just chuck a headset into your bag, then the whole equation changes – it becomes something people can actually use."

Bell, a former Google employee, set up the company four years ago to exploit the use of 3D imaging of environments. The firm developed a six-lens camera rig that can scan the rooms of a three-bedroom house in under an hour and counts Redfin and Apartments.com as some of its customers.

Sticking these images up on websites using WebGL is easy enough, and has proven very handy for realtors, but also the construction industry and facilities management markets. But when the Samsung VR came out, the firm started porting its images into Unity and began developing for VR users.

Matterport went for the Samsung VR over the forthcoming pure Oculus headset on the grounds of portability. Not having to plug into a computer is a major advantage for anyone looking to use a VR headset outside of the office.

Brad Allen, executive chairman of virtual reality streaming firm NextVR, agreed. "It's all down to this," he said, tapping the Samsung VR headset on the table at the conference. "At Mobile World Congress later this month you're going to see other smartphone manufacturers launch VR products and the market's going to open up."

NextVR organizes VR streaming of major sporting events, including games from the National Basketball Association and NASCAR, the US motor racing organization where cars seldom turn right.

At present you can fit a VR rig in a car very easily and give viewers the feeling of being in the car with the driver, he said. Viewers at home can watch the action with a $100 bit of kit (minus the smartphone cost) and feel like they are right in the action.

Will 2016 be the year VR goes mainstream then? Probably not, if truth be told. While Samsung's effort is good, it's still somewhat grainy and Google Cardboard isn't exactly inspiring at the moment.

But give it a couple of years and VR's day will come. My bet's on 2018, or possibly next year, but we've come a hell of a long way from the days of the neck-aching headset and accompanying server that accompanied my first VR experience. ®


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