The hype over virtual reality (VR) has largely been belied so far because of challenges to its adoption. Headsets were either too expensive or too poor in their visual quality. The bulkiness of headsets and their rendering of VR worlds sometimes produced sickening experiences.
A headset tethered to a PC restricted movement. It also required a high performance gaming PC with an expensive graphic chip that could render a frame rate suitable to the human eye. If the frame rate drops, the viewer starts feeling sick.
Phone-based VR, like Google Daydream and Samsung Gear, haven’t gone beyond simple use cases because of limited mobile computing power and battery life.
But last month’s launch of Oculus Quest has got the VR community buzzing again. Firstly, it’s a tether-free, “all-in-one" VR headset, with all the computation and rendering happening within the headset, which means it need not be wired to a PC. “Now you’re free to walk around with just the headset. It’s a different experience," says Ajay Lavakare, chief product officer and early investor in Noida-based VR startup Trezi.
The earlier Oculus Go was also untethered, but it was mainly a consumer play. The Quest is far more powerful, which makes it suitable for enterprise VR, points out Lavakare.
Secondly, a standalone headset providing fully immersive VR makes it much more cost-effective. “The software for creating VR content has advanced significantly, thanks to gaming. It’s the hardware that needed to catch up, and Oculus Quest does that by halving the cost," says Srivatsan Jayashankar, CEO and co-founder of Chennai-based XR Labs.
One of the cool new features in Oculus Quest is hand-tracking. So now, by placing your hands in front of the headset, you can see and use your own hands in the VR world to touch or move things. Thus it goes into the realm of mixed reality (MR) where the virtual world and real objects—your hands—come together in the picture. This would enable VR developers to make it more user-friendly.
For instance, Trezi enables architects to use VR to showcase building plans to clients in a much richer way than 2D line drawings or photographs could do. “With Trezi, a client can enter a building that has not yet been constructed. The building design is brought to life at full scale in VR. A person could look at it from different perspectives and even crawl under a table to look at wiring," says Lavakare. Hand-tracking will add new elements like letting the user move an object, click on virtual buttons for different options, and so on.
Indian startups have a labour arbitrage advantage in VR because high quality content with world-class developers is cheaper to produce in India, adds Lavakare. The challenge for them is that enterprise adoption is low in the country. “One-third of the architecture and design firms in the US and Europe currently use VR or plan to use it in the coming year, whereas it’s not even 5% in India," he says. Being closer to customers would help startups to iterate and develop their solutions to arrive at product-market fit.
New use cases
The good news for startups is that the use cases of VR are expanding. Chennai-based XR Labs deploys it for training workers in energy, automotive, and other industries. It has also started working on a VR project for the Indian army in collaboration with Hyderabad-based startup Big Bang Boom Solutions.
They’re among startups selected for a new Innovations for Defence Excellence (iDEX) programme. Big Bang Boom is developing autonomous tanks which can be remote-controlled just like drones. “The future of war will be machines versus machines," says Krishna Milan Rao, co-founder of Big Bang Boom, who earlier built an AR gaming startup before the Pokemon era. It won worldwide rights for the movie Terminator’s AR game.
Big Bang Boom roped in XR Labs for the tank project to create a “see-through armour" for it which will use cameras and VR to give visibility and situational awareness to personnel who are either inside the tank or in a remote location. “Earlier, one couldn’t imagine a startup working with the Indian military. So it’s great that they’re opening up to us to see how we can innovate," says Rohan Ramaswamy, co-founder and CTO of XR Labs.
Advances in VR hardware and software will help developers explore new innovation. When Facebook acquired Oculus in 2014, Mark Zuckerberg touted VR as the next computing platform. Whereas Oculus was mainly targeted at gaming earlier, the new release brings it closer to what Zuckerberg had promised: “After games, we’re going to make Oculus a platform for many other experiences."
One of these is Facebook Horizon which aims to usher an era of social VR. Users can create their own virtual worlds, without any coding, and interact with friends. This could serve Zuckerberg’s agenda to move consumers into headsets and away from a mobile world dominated by Google and Apple. Whatever may be Facebook’s competitive strategy, VR startups are excited over the new possibilities that Oculus Quest creates for them.