By Howard Fast
“Virtual reality (VR), not so long ago widely regarded as futuristic science fiction, now finds itself newly on the doorstep of a gold-rush boom that could see its appeal quickly broaden from enthusiasts and consumers to businesses in an array of industries.
If, indeed, VR proves to be IT’s next big thing – after all, Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg last year called it the “next major computing platform” – what needs to happen for solution providers to have a play? The obvious place to start is with the new money.
Consider for a moment that VR’s transformative pieces either already are in place or are on the way: With a few exceptions, right now VR mostly is geared to consumer-facing gaming. But at some point in the next few years, the technology will gain wider application in verticals like healthcare, industrial, architecture, construction and the like, where the profit potential is far greater.
JBKnowledge, a Bryan, Texas-based construction and insurance industry specialist, already applies VR technology to the construction field, according to CEO James Benham. “The entire objective [with VR in construction] is presence – forgetting you’re not in the real world to truly experience building design,” he tells Channelnomics.
“VR is good for some specific applications and not for others,” he points out. “If I want to experience a three- or four-dimensional (three dimensions plus time) rendering of a construction project, I want to jump inside VR to do that.”
What’s fueling VR’s move from the lab to the perimeter of center stage is a recent flurry of acquisitions amid millions in investment capital flowing to the platform’s startups. Facebook’s nine-month old, $2 billion purchase of startup Occulus VR notwithstanding, over the last four quarters budding players in the segment have drawn some $1.05 billion in investment capital from venture firms, angel investors and private equity in 103 deals, for a 214 percent year-over-year increase, according to researcher CB Insights.
During that period, IT heavyweights Intel, Google, HTC and Samsung collectively nailed down 14 VR investment deals, the researcher said.
And, should Magic Leap, an ultra-secretive Florida-headquartered startup, secure the $827 million it seeks in additional funding to add to a $542 million, Google-led funding round last fall, the segment’s overall investment figures will nearly double over the prior four quarters.
A diving board for solution providers?
Why should solution providers care about the new money populating VR? If VR follows the pattern of other emerging technologies, developers and solution providers will step in as the sales, value and profit potential of the platform emerges in the business market. In other words, as VR’s investors cash in on its potential, the business market will be poised to open wide for solution providers.
“This isn’t the first time that VR has been a hot topic or an area of investment,” says Charles King, principal analyst at Pund-IT. “In the late 1980s, Silicon Graphics was at the forefront of VR and other immersive R&D, in part with projects it was supporting at the NASA Ames Lab. Since then, interest in VR comes and goes in a cycle that’s more than a little similar to Hollywood’s interest in 3D movies.”
However, adds King, what makes this new round of enthusiasm for VR somewhat different is the concurrent development of powerful related technologies, including PCs, networking, wireless and wearables.
“You could argue that there’s never been a better time for VR to successfully cross over into retail markets and find a place among consumers and businesses,” he says. “The only caveat I would offer is that numerous smart, well-funded people and companies have previously made that same argument for VR at various times over the past 25 years or so.”
Still, with all that money flowing VR’s way, at some juncture in the not-too-distant future its hardware, in all likelihood, will evolve from Star Trek-like headsets into something far more sophisticated and less obtrusive. In turn, the resulting software will be targeted at specific vertical applications, particularly to offer a different way to ‘experience’ data or what JBKnowledge’s Benham calls “presence”.
That’s where opportunities for solution providers and developers may flourish, says Eric Alterman, CEO at Flowthings.io, a Brooklyn, NY-headquarteredInternet of Things data specialist.
“VR is just taking more sets of data and more sophisticated ways to present the data to make use of the human interface engine, which makes it faster than programming it into artificial intelligence,” he says.
“Where it gets interesting is when there are different sets of data that appear in front of you that don’t necessarily have an obvious correlation,” he notes. “When developers do get their hands on [VR], the goal will be to present varied data in a visual way so that people can look at it and make inferences.”
At this point, VR’s cousin – augmented reality – may be more commercially viable than VR in that its users maintain contact with the real world. By contrast, VR users are immersed in a made-up, completely virtual world, hence the necessary head gear.
VR’s future, says Benham, likely will dispense not only with helmets or goggles, but also monitors, projectors, PCs and even mobile devices, what he calls a “de-digitizing of the world around us”.
“Holograms, or retinal projection, allowing you to see an object where there is none and isn’t limited to your field of view in front of you,” is where we’re headed, according to Benham.
Indeed, getting there truly may be the stuff of science fiction.
“The logical progression with VR development is desktops to mobile to wearables, then to contact lenses and bionic implants,” says Benham. “While holograms are a different kind of imaging, in reality…click here to continue reading.