Is this the real life? Virtual reality gets real

After decades of disappointed expectations, virtual reality has, if the wave of hardware options and burgeoning content libraries is anything to go by, finally entered the mainstream. But, as we march into the brave new world of VR, those same old questions remain: what consumer applications are actually available right now? How much is going to cost? And, will VR ever really live up to the hype?

Somewhere in San Francisco, a lone soldier stands in a desert wasteland surveying her surroundings for movement. You’re there too. Over the horizon appears a vehicle, kicking up the dust of the arid landscape, driven by, apparently, some lunatic straight out of Mad Max. He speeds nearer, then slides to a halt next to you. He leers over the steering wheel, menacing the woman, before screeching the tires and disappearing over a nearby rise.

How unsettling. 

Luckily, you’re not actually in a desert wasteland – you’re in a San Franciscan warehouse, and the woman, plus her peculiar friend, were never really there. Not really. 

You’ve just submitted yourself to 8i’s stunning virtual reality experience, the crème de la crème of VR experiences. The effect is uncanny, startlingly realistic and exists entirely in the virtual world. Not bad for a startup from Wellington.  

Now based in New Zealand, Los Angeles and San Francisco, 8i is currently the best-in-show in the burgeoning virtual reality boom. The company has created a ground-breaking technology that puts the viewer right in the middle of – and face-to-face with – an immersive, 360 degree, virtual environment. 

8i has succeeded in creating a trademarked Holographic Virtual Reality (HVR) that ‘wraps’ the action around the viewer, all based on Oculus' heavy-hitting VR technology. 

“What we’ve developed is absolutely the world’s best solution for making virtual reality and augmented reality human,” says Toni Moyes, chief operating officer at 8i. “You can actually record people in a format for VR and AR [augmented reality] that makes sense and that hasn’t really existed before. We’ve opened our own studio in Los Angeles, but the next thing we want to do is power-up other studios who want to record in the format, so we can really help fuel the whole content-creation system for virtual reality and augmented reality.”

Toni Moyes

8i’s technology, and others like it, has captured the imagination of big-thinkers, techies and investors alike, the latter of which played a significant part in the company’s recent $13.5 million Series A funding round. 

On examination, those investors make an interesting mix. RRE Ventures, Founders Fund Science, Horizons Ventures, Samsung Ventures, Dolby Family Ventures, Bertelsmann Digital Media Investments, Sound Ventures, Signia Venture Partners, Inevitable Ventures, Freelands and Advancit Capital have all contributed to the company’s significant cash injection. 

And the money’s being put to good use. As far as cutting edge VR goes, 8i is currently the ‘it girl’, creating a platform that companies big and small can exploit in ways never before seen.  

“We’ve got a huge amount of interest from people wanting to come to 8i studios in LA and record content,” says Moyes. “But we’ve also got people going, ‘I want one of these rigs myself, I want to operate it, and I want to use 8i software to help me make content for this new medium’.

“So that’s the next big phase of our growth; to roll that out. It’s like making everything that we do – our software and our whole system and playbook – into more of a ‘product’ and getting that out into the wild and into the hands of content creators.”

Tilt Brush has profoundly altered the boundaries of art, and unlike so many pie-in-the-sky ‘ground-breaking technologies’, the technology is available to the consumer now. 

And that immediacy is driving investment. Market researcher Strategy Analytics says it expects global virtual reality headset revenues will reach US$895 million in 2016 alone. According to the group, about 77 percent of that value will likely be attributed to developers of the high-spec premium devices currently jostling for hardware dominance: Oculus, HTC and Sony. 

If current trends continue, according to Statista, by 2020 the virtual reality hardware market could be hitting US$5.2 billion dollars.
The software? US$24.5 billion. 

And that’s the magic of VR as it stands today. The applications appear to be endless, and everybody wants a piece.

Among those companies looking to exploit the technology’s as-yet-unimagined possibilities is search engine giant Google, which is currently dropping jaws and blowing minds with its ‘impossible painting’ technology, Tilt Brush. Using HTC Vive hardware and Steam software, plus the Tilt Brush application, Google’s new toy lets artists ‘paint’ in a fully three-dimensional, VR environment. 

“These days, digital art has spurred new opportunities for creativity, going well beyond good old pencils and paper,” said Andrey Doronichev, group product manager of Google VR. “It’s against this canvas that we bring you Tilt Brush – a new virtual reality app that lets you paint from an entirely new perspective.”

The technology, which was launched in April, lets designers and artists ‘paint’ space in real time with the flick of a wrist, using impossible materials to create lucid, interactive 3D constructions. Fashion designers can create full-size sketches using textured materials – silk, denim and leather – in minutes, bridging the gap between sculpture and drawing. Artists can produce room-filling installations populated with ‘fire’ elements, free floating ‘stars’, and sophisticated wireframe constructions in real time. 

Hopes are high, and driving the optimism are high-profile thought leaders who are encouraging new developments with both financial backing and colourful speculation.

“This is just the start,” said Facebook chief/technology oracle, Mark Zuckerberg, back in 2014 when the company acquired Oculus VR for an eye-watering US$2 billion. “After games, we’re going to make Oculus a platform for many other experiences. Imagine enjoying a court side seat at a game, studying in a classroom of students and teachers all over the world, or consulting with a doctor face-to-face – just by putting on goggles in your home.

“These are just some of the potential uses. By working with developers and partners across the industry, together we can build many more. One day, we believe this kind of immersive, augmented reality will become a part of daily life for billions of people.”

Jamie Telford

Two years later, VR is still at the front of Zuckerberg’s mind. In January, he outlined his personal plans for the year, included among them, the intention to learn Mandarin, build an AI system to run his home, and to use new technology to help him “visualize data in VR” to improve services and to lead his businesses more effectively

An endorsement from Zuckerburg is enough to give momentum to a whole industry and in April, Facebook unveiled its Surround 360, a 17-lens 3D VR camera. Unlike most VR rigs, the Surround 360 requires almost no post-production work, making 360 video content creation quicker, less expensive, and more accessible to filmographers. And here’s the kicker: Facebook won’t be selling the Surround 360. Rather, the company will upload its hardware designs and video-stitching algorithms to Github, with interested parties able to buy the necessary construction parts online for an estimated US$30,000.

Though the Zuck’s production tools may be beyond the scope of the average consumer, for all intents and purposes, VR has officially gone mainstream, at least if the current offers from retailers like Noel Leeming and JB Hi-Fi are anything to go by.

“For VR, it’s very much about the cost,” says Jamie Telford, Media Design School game development lecturer and VR researcher.

“The miniaturisation of the technology is the democratisation of the technology. The tech is there, it’s at the right price, and all these things have met up at the right time.”

“With VR, it’s happening now because of the mobile phone revolution,” he says. “The fact that you can get these cheap, high-quality screens in combination with the gyroscopes and accelerometers has seen the tech only recently explode.”

For the VR curious in this country, the most high-profile low-cost smartphone-based device is likely Samsung’s Gear VR, made in partnership with Oculus. Now on its second iteration, Samsung Gear VR retails for just $199 for Galaxy S7 users.

Todd Selwyn

“Previously you’d be spending around $800 and you’d need a fancy computer,” says head of product at Samsung NZ, Todd Selwyn. “Traditionally, that hardware has been relatively expensive, but that’s changing now. This is the technology going mainstream. The handsets are always getting more powerful so the handsets will continue to improve in the near future.”

“The VR headsets – the Oculus and the Vive – they require 90 frames per-second, which is a refresh of the screen every eleven milliseconds, so to do that at full resolution – which is full HD – it requires quite a beefy video card to make that happen,” says Telford.

Telford says even though the handset-based experience won’t quickly compare to more expensive stand-alone units, the market will still be there.

“When you compare that to a mobile phone and what that is capable of graphically, you can start to see how it’s not going to be very comfortable for a VR experience,” he says. “What we’re trying to do locally is encourage that Kiwi ingenuity and that local ‘take on the world’ attitude. We feel like we’re seeding the market a little bit in terms of what you can do with this stuff.”

While Samsung accepts that, from an experience/processing power standpoint, mobile handset-based devices can’t compete with stand-alone, specialist units, market analysts are predicting the price point alone is likely to attract the majority of users in the first instance. According to Strategy Analytics, Oculus, HTC and Sony will only account for 13 percent of overall VR headset volume, as low-priced smartphone-based devices reach an estimated 12.8 million unit market share.

“Consumers will soon be exposed to an incredible diversity of virtual reality options ranging from ultra-low cost to super premium,” Strategy Analytics’ director of wearable device ecosystems Cliff Raskind says. “We expect smartphone-based viewers to take the lion’s share of VR headset volumes in 2016.”

Making high-resolution, fully immersive VR content on the fly is no mean feat. There are still plenty of technical hurdles yet to be overcome, so it stands to reason that content producers are likely to take a ‘wait-and-see’ position before fully commiting to creating libraries of top-of-the-line VR content.

“Take 360 degree video for example,” says Telford. “While it’s straightforward to produce 360 degree photos, they’re not stereoscopic. To have stereoscopic camera setups producing 360 degree content, things start getting really complicated. How do you put actors in the scene? How do you hide all of the crew involved? It’s complicated.”

Telford says that it’s those challenges faced by video that serve as an opportunity game developers, especially independent and niche developers, can exploit. “Game developers can step up here, because you don’t need to tackle any of that complexity. You’re creating in a virtual world and you can render that world in any direction, at any time, in stereoscopic, 360 spherical video. The games tech stuff is just such a natural fit for this technology.”

Another flourishing area for content creation is sports, especially in spectator involvement. Founder of Dunedin computer graphics design and production company Animation Research Ltd (ARL), Ian Taylor, says that VR is likely to revolutionise the way we experience sports media. ARL’s sports division, Virtual Eye was used in the recent America’s Cup action and broadcast to a global audience via an app – the Virtual Eye race viewer – in addition to a TV broadcast, and the whole spectacle was produced by Kiwis working in New York.

“The possibilities, the experience, it goes beyond what people imagine,” says Taylor. “VR puts you in a truly privileged position, from standing at the tee with the golf players to being like the 12th man on the yacht, that seat you pay tens of thousands of dollars for. You are right there, tasting the action. Exciting stuff lies ahead if you tell a good story and transform the experience.”

While first- and second-generation consumer products are available today, discovering just what the possibilities for the technology are, for the consumer at least, is now just a matter of patience.

“The sky's the limit,” says Telford. “It’s whatever you can think of. The classic is action sports, being somewhere you can’t be – sitting courtside at NBA games, being at a concert without being there – all those consumer applications are going to be pretty strong.

“In Australia they’re already using it for shop layouts, working out what’s best for a supermarket, and they’re starting to do that – virtual walk-throughs before they have to

invest in any infrastructure. And the natural extension of that is that you’ll be able to be online and do a virtual walk through the supermarket when you’re shopping. If you see something you like, you just click on it and add it to your basket. That’s not too far away. It’s an amazing technology and an amazing opportunity for everybody.”

Telford is also excited by the potential of VR and AR in the near future – with some caveats.

“AR and VR devices are going to completely replace the LCD screen in the TV,” he says. “You will not need to look at a screen anymore for information. It might even bring about the whole idea of actually ‘surfing the internet’. Can you imagine being fully immersed in the internet, as if physically in that space? That could soon be possible.

“The interesting thing is how this will open up the science of how humans cognitively relate to the world, how we actually see the real world and how we relate to it. These sorts of experiences will start to ask the questions that need to be answered about how we actually interact with the world with our brains. For example, if you put on a VR headset and you don’t go anywhere, but you ‘fly’ for seven hours to a different time zone in the virtual experience, would you experience jetlag? In 100 years you’re going to be thinking about this a whole lot more. We're going to be in a place where the body ceases to be important anymore.”

So if we’re facing questions about how we relate to the world cognitively, and the connection between our minds and our bodies, should we be treading carefully? Could we unwittingly be giving rise to The Matrix? Are we at risk of losing what makes us human?

Toni Moyes takes a measured approach.

“There are lots of things about running a start-up that cause you to wake up in the middle of the night,” she says, “but not that one. I do believe this technology is inevitable and it will take communication and empathy and the sharing of information forward for humanity.

“With every new technology, there are always bad actors, and people are afraid of the downsides, but my belief is that the upside always tends to be greater. And to be here, in this position at the beginning of the industry, we’ve got an opportunity to make sure it gets used for good.”