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Facebook’s Oculus How “Disruptive” Will Virtual Reality Be?

Of the various announcements and products that were showcased at Facebook’s developer conference (F8) last week, the item with by far the most potential is the Virtual Reality (VR) headset. Prior to the vent, many different articles have asked the question; is VR just another over-hyped novelty technology or is it in fact a new “platform” that will fundamentally change and reconfigure the digital world? Ultimately, this will depend on software developers and business models that emerge for VR – as opposed to hardware.

After 20 minutes of wearing the Samsung Gear VR glasses at F8 it is clear to see that the current state of VR is amazing and is already commercially viable, though it still has some distance to go to fully realise the technology’s potential. F8 speaker Michael Abrash, Oculus Rift’s chief scientist, said that he spent most of his time in Ted-esque fashion, speaking about the science and physiology of perception rather than potential use cases for VR. The theme was “reality is what your eyes and brain think it is.”

Abrash cited many of the works of pop culture and entertainment as the inspiration for VR, one of which was the novel Snow Crash and the movies The Matrix and Avatar. Abrash spoke about The Matrix but without any acknowledgement of the dystopian and cautionary nature of the film. As many of these works of fiction have depicted, there is a dark side to this kind of VR technology. Internet and video games are very addictive in today’s society, however, VR games and VR alternative realities will be even more so. Imagine a more immersive and compelling Second Life with real-time multi-player interactions – voilà The Matrix.

VR gaming was the reason that Oculus Rift was created. Gaming will be the way VR enters the market. However, what’s interesting to consider is other VR applications that go beyond gaming in movies, music and sports, education and training, travel, psychotherapy and other fields. Already there are almost eight or nine competitors coming out with headsets in the next year. Most of these will be quite affordable. Samsung’s Gear VR headsets are priced at $199 however they do require the ownership of a Galaxy Note 4 or a Galaxy S6. It is disappointing, yet understandable, that the company is using the VR as a tool in order for people to buy their phones.

In a lot of ways, the Samsung Gear VR headset is the standard for the industry already. Image resolution is really good now and will only improve. Overall the hardware experience will improve fairly rapidly, driven by competition and technology advances. There is huge potential for Virtual Reality Technology. There could be an on-demand or ‘pay per view’ market for individual titles or VR experiences that are downloaded directly to the goggles. It’s also very likely that there will be sponsored content, product placement (particularly in games) and video pre-roll. Any advertisements in VR will have to be ‘native’ and not interruptive. However, this is simple to imagine, for example, having in-stadium ads for real brands in sports VR experiences and ‘outdoor ads’ within real or imagined urban VR environments.

Whether it turns out to be just an exciting new game distribution platform or something a lot more profound and transformative, what is evident is that software and good filmmaking are going to be pivotal to the future of Virtual Reality Technology.

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