Operations

Opportunities for virtual reality

March 2019

Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality have long been feted as the next big thing. Technology companies have been hiding in plain sight to get the upper hand for when the battle truly starts.

The hardware battle for virtual reality is varied with Sony, HTC, Google, Samsung, Oculus (Facebook) and Microsoft all vying for attention.

Virtual Reality’s route to market

Virtual Reality really took off with the 2012  Kickstarter campaign for Oculus followed by Facebook’s $2 billion acquisition of Oculus in 2014. With the launch of the consumer Rift and HTC’s Vive headset in early 2016, alongside Sony’s PlayStation VR, some of the initial hype has faded. Commercially VR proved itself in 2017 and the industry is expected to generate £1.95 billion this year and the VR hardware statistics speak for themselves:

  • Sony has sold 2 million PlayStation VR devices since launch a few months ago
  • Google has shipped more than 10 million Cardboard headsets since 2014
  • Google is also estimated to have sold between 2 and 3.5 million Daydream (Vr headset) devices in 2017 alone
  • Samsung is suggested to have sold up to 7 million Gear VR headsets in 2017

Hardware challenges remain

But the truth remains that the hardware itself is still bulky (even if it is getting better all the time), can be cumbersome and blocks the user's eyes and social interaction. Prices are being aggressively slashed to get VR units in the hands of mainstream consumers and the experiences are getting better all the time, but it’s worth noting that Apple still remains noticeably absent from the VR market. Its Chief Executive was quoted back in 2016 saying:

“My own view is that augmented reality is the larger of the two, probably by far, because this gives the capability for both of us to sit and be very present talking to each other but also have other things visually for both of us to see.” Tim Cook, CEO, Apple

Whether failing to capitalise on the VR market is a strategic move or a mistake remains to be seen for Apple.

Mixed reality is accelerating

It’s goal of pure augmented reality or mixed reality is being explored by others – notably Magic Leap, which plans to make its first consumer mixed reality headset available in 2018 and is soon to open its SDK to developers. The price tag of a rumoured £1,500 may be another thing altogether although the firm is already valued at $6bn without having yet launched a product.

Microsoft HoloLens

Microsoft’s HoloLens launched back in 2015 as a pair of mixed reality smart glasses developed and manufactured by Microsoft. HoloLens was one of the first mixed reality platforms (running the Windows 10 Windows Mixed Reality platform) and has found an early adopter market with gamers and the likes of Ford and ThyssenKrupp. The current HoloLens hardware still has a prohibitive retail tag of £2,719 in the UK. The next version of HoloLens isn't due out until 2019, so it remains to be seen how well Microsoft can bring down the price point to create a more viable proposition.

Adoption at scale

You only have to look back to 2016 to read predictions that VR technologies would be adopted at scale by companies in 2018. Our view is that such predictions still seem some way off although more business applications are being developed. From the perspective of the operations businesses we work with, there are still valuable use cases such as:

  • Viewing knowledge base information related to the particular asset, site or product the field technician has been sent to fix
  • Providing access to safety information and alerts when handing equipment
  • Enabling dynamic remote support based on the point of view of the technician
  • Delivering an immersive training environment to help engineers visualise complex equipment or simulate potentially hazardous environments (such as in a nuclear reactor)

What will happen next?

The tipping point will be the cost and adoption rate of the hardware and managing the artificiality of the VR headset itself, particularly in service focused field organisations. The level of fidelity and context sensitive modelling that is often required can make actual deployment at scale cost prohibitive. It’s one thing modelling a power plant control room in high fidelity but quite another to model tens of thousands of assets or sites such that visual triggers can be presented to the headset.

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