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Photo: iStockphoto
Photo: iStockphoto

The coming of age of virtual reality

Experts, however, do acknowledge that the price and feedback details of the respective devices would matter this year if VR is to become mainstream

If you have ever visited the tourism ministry’s Incredible India website that offers “walk-throughs" of streets across numerous Indian cities, you are likely to have sampled virtual tours of its multiple tourist attractions.

Launched in October 2013, in partnership with technology company Genesys International Corp. Ltd, the site offers the service in association with WoNoBo.com, built by Genesys. The virtual reality (VR) project is a part of India’s plan to increase global tourists.

Incredible India is but a case in point that VR is coming of age. For instance, a Bengaluru-based start-up Findmeashoe.com, owned by EMBL Shopping Services India Pvt. Ltd, offers virtual three-dimensional (3D) fitting services for the footwear category to e-commerce firms.

The solution entails a mobile-based foot scanner that requires customers to take just three photos with their smartphone to register the profile of their feet. It’s an algorithm-based recommendation, keeping in mind multiple parameters including foot dimensions, shape, size, style, design, construction and material of the footwear.

VR can be referred to as immersive multimedia or computer-simulated reality, replicating an environment that simulates a physical presence in places in the real world or an imagined world, allowing the user to interact in that world. VRs artificially create sensory experiences which can include sight, hearing, touch and smell—something that one can experience, for instance, when watching a 4D (four-dimensional) movie in Disneyland.

Big technology companies like Facebook Inc.-owned Oculus VR Llc, HTC Corp., Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd and Sony Corp. have already declared their presence in the market with VR devices, typically headsets.

VR headsets immerse users in the 3D world, letting them look around and feel their way in the virtual environment. And, according to research firm Juniper, about three million VR headsets will be shipped in 2016. The number could rise to 30 million by 2020, said the report released in September 2015. Another research firm TrendForce pegs VR headset shipments at about 14 million units in 2016, and 38 million by 2020.

In November, HTC marketing chief Jeff Gattis said 2016 will be “critical" for the VR industry. HTC plans to have its own Vive VR headset on store shelves this year. In June, Oculus announced the launch of its first headset, Rift, and a pair of hand controllers, both of which it plans to release sometime this year.

Oculus also teamed up with Samsung to create the Gear VR, a $99 headset that uses Samsung phones as screens, indicating that the two firms are serious about marrying VR and mobile devices.

Microsoft is not far behind. Its HoloLens, more correctly referred to as augmented reality (AR) than VR, blends 3D virtual visuals with the real world. Unlike VR that is all about a world created solely on computers or online, AR still deals with the real world and has elements of the virtual world built atop it, akin to layers of information.

Microsoft opened the HoloLens Developer Experience Showcase at its Manhattan headquarters in December for software developers to try out the new HoloLens headsets, so they could build apps for the “first-ever, fully untethered holographic glasses, powered by Windows 10".

The company is expected to begin shipping HoloLens to developers sometime in the first quarter of this year. According to Greg Oates, senior editor at travel information portal Skift, “Microsoft’s HoloLens has the potential to impact the travel user experience by providing contextual information with immersive 3D holographic storytelling."

Another company bullish about the VR space is Google. The company announced a new kind of camera for taking live-action 3D VR videos at its I/O developer conference in June, partnered with action-cam maker GoPro, to make Jump, which lets people create professional VR videos on smartphones, which are much cheaper and less complicated.

Google-owned YouTube launched a “Cardboard mode" for its Android app, which allows every video in YouTube’s massive library to be viewed through the headset. The idea is to get people comfortable with shooting in VR, a future that Google would very much like to provide. Sony’s PlayStation VR, previously known by codename Project Morpheus, will also be among the VR devices hitting store shelves this year.

Initially, VR is expected to find success primarily due to gaming. The relatively low costs and minimal time requirement thus will be strong incentives for game developers as they will become major content providers for VR hardware, believe TrendForce researchers.

But VR may still prove a ground-breaking technology in many areas of life and work, believe experts. For example, two London psychologists, Ashley Conway and Vanessa Ruspoli, have developed a system that uses Oculus’s Rift headset to treat patients with phobias.

Their company Virtual Exposure Therapy aims to give patients exposure in a virtual world to the thing they fear. “We filmed Helena, who’s always been scared of getting into lifts, being guided into a series of smaller and smaller spaces…," they said in an article published in the January edition of The Nation magazine. Ruspoli kept on checking her anxiety levels as she entered each lift, and after a while the anxieties dropped. Researchers noticed VR had made a difference to Helena; she was able to travel in a real lift after practising in VR. She would otherwise have opted to take the stairs just a few weeks earlier.

Similarly, many businesses and public bodies may soon use VR as a way of interacting with consumers and employees, such as virtual conferencing, with its ability to be “anywhere, anytime" or virtual stores where customers can feel they are experiencing every item physically, while being in a virtual environment.

Experts, however, do acknowledge that the price and feedback details of the respective devices would matter this year if VR is to become mainstream.

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