24th February 2016

Will virtual become a new reality?

VR is everywhere at Mobile World Congress 2016 (MWC) – the annual, Barcelona-based, gathering for the planet’s mobile industry to network, announce new developments and make deals. Turn any corner and you’re almost guaranteed to see somebody look like they’re (badly) playing blind man’s bluff or struggling to find the light switch after a few too many. The sight of limbs seemingly moving in no relation to what’s around them was enough to make me realise that my friends and relations were actually laughing at me, and not with me, that time at my cousin’s wedding.

But despite the obvious aesthetics issues for onlookers, there is something captivating and tantalising about the potential of VR. The desire to experience something other than your own life or to be transported to another world entirely has brought us from storytelling and fiction to the moon and beyond.

The idea of VR as escapism has to date given the technology a largely antisocial image. But this is something that Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook want to challenge. At Samsung’s pre-MWC event on Sunday, The Zuck popped up to declare that VR would be the next great social platform.

His vision was that of a virtual campfire that you could sit at with others from all around the world. He told us that “anyone can experience anything they want” and that it’s “going to change the way we live and work and communicate.

However, Facebook has bet big on VR technology with its purchase of Oculus in 2014. It has a vested interest in making sure that the technology is a success, but if it can help identify and deliver the ‘killer app’ for the platform, it may have backed the right horse.

The next couple of years will be make or break for the industry. The barriers for adoption are falling: HTC’s recently unveiled Vive system will retail for $799. Samsung is including the Gear VR headset with orders of its new flagship Galaxy S7 phone. Even cheap conversion kits such as Google Cardboard can turn a smartphone with modest specifications into a rudimentary VR ready device.

But what’s it like?

I tried out the new HTC Vive system at MWC this week, and it’s undoubtedly a far superior experience to the jerky 1990s amusement arcade systems or some of the earlier smartphone-based headsets I had used previously. The basic 3D painting game being demoed was smooth and responsive, and gave a real feeling of being in – and interacting with – the space around you.

But a platform is only as good as the content being developed for it, and for the time being, games and certain industrial applications appear to be most of what’s in the pipeline. What will likely fuel a crossover is an ability to interact with others in a virtual space, I’d really like to see if inspiration can be derived from the immersive theatre and cinema experiences that are so popular now.

And if Facebook is a key driver behind its adoption, you can be sure it won’t be too long until the monetisation strategy is in place. This will create opportunities for brands too. What they will look like? It’s too early to say, but with many organisations still finding their way in terms of social media, starting to explore VR now could give an early-mover advantage before others start to play catch up.

By Gearóid Cashman, Senior B2B Account Manager