4 Fearless Predictions for Virtual Reality in 2017
Steady (but slow) progress toward greater mainstream adoption as the Virtual Reality (VR) industry takes shape
Okay, “fearless” may be a bit of a stretch. But if you consider the collective ineptitude of such “expert” prognosticators as weather forecasters, sports analysts, and political pundits, you can’t begrudge me my hubris in advancing my Best Guesses for virtual reality (VR) industry in the year ahead.
That said, there are fairly clear indicators of industry trends that will help shape the growing VR industry in 2017. In 2016, VR continued to move beyond a fringe component of sci-fi novels and accelerated its inevitable march to mainstream status. Of the $4B U.S. invested in VR since 2010, over $1B U.S. was invested in the first two quarters of 2016 alone, and investment is projected to rise to as high as $14B U.S. in sales by 2020. Major tech industry players joined together to promote the industry, and major advancements were made in opening up application development to an audience beyond hard-core programmers. With more money, more and larger organizations (with their corresponding financial muscle), and – most important – more people involved in facilitating the VR industry’s evolution, 2017 promises to be an intriguing year for the technology.
So what will 2017 bring? Without further ado, I present four predictions in decreasing order of boldness:
1. Facebook buys Twitter
You may be asking, “But…what does this have to do with VR?” The answer: everything. As host of the world’s largest social network and enthusiastic adopters, developers, and promoters of VR technology, Facebook is uniquely positioned to have a major impact on the technology in 2017. Plus, it’s one of the very few organizations that have the financial clout to actually execute the purchase of another pioneering social network.
With major changes in leadership and a depressed stock price, speculation of a new ownership group for Twitter hit new highs in Q4 2016, as rumors of an imminent sale to potential suitors such as Google and Microsoft swirled. There’s still plenty of value in the microblogging site (see Trump, Donald), as it’s the only of the original Big Four social networks (along with Facebook, LinkedIn, and YouTube) that has been optimized for mobile from its outset and usage patterns consistently point to accelerated mobile/smart device adoption.
With content strategy increasingly focusing on video and specifically, real-time streaming, few targets can match the network, reach, and – most important – trove of big data like Twitter can. Acquiring Twitter would provide Facebook with an unprecedented – and wholly singular – opportunity to expand its real-time, targeted advertising capacity, while developing streaming VR content that it can deliver to an established network of 100s of millions users, conditioned for real-time, mobile interaction.
Facebook will look to absorb Twitter’s audience, eliminate a rival for attention in the mobile space, and augment its leadership in real-time streaming.
2. Big advances are made in social/VR integration
At the Oculus Connect 3 conference this past October, Facebook gave us a glimpse of what the new world of VR-based social interaction will look and feel like.
Several of the key features included their haptic – or sensory – “controller’s emotion options, which make avatars show facial expressions, letting you look surprised, happy or confused in VR….Eventually, the goal is to achieve (this) through gestural tracking and voice analysis.” Users will also be able to change backgrounds to live locations, further enhancing the technology’s immersive capabilities and appeal.
There are other players in the social dimension of VR, such as AltSpace, which hosts a calendar of virtual events and is compatible with powerful, desktop-tethered headsets including HTC Vive, Oculus, and the portable headset Samsung Gear VR. Still, few organizations have the financial muscle and built-in social network required to accelerate mainstream social adoption with the speed and efficiency of Facebook.
Watch for the social media giant to be a major player in social interaction via VR during the year ahead, continue its quest to be the dominant virtual platform of the looming VR Age, and potentially redefine the entire concept of “social media” as it’s presently known. Also watch for two new features, Parties and Rooms, to serve as primary hosts for social interaction and delivery channels for Oculus’ social apps.
3. Apple, Microsoft join the GVRA (swing to major manufacturers)
Admit it: you had never heard of the Global Virtual Reality Association (GVRA).
If you hadn’t, that’s perfectly understandable as the organization didn’t exist, officially, until it issued a press release on December 7, 2016.
The organization brings together global powerhouses in headset production, including Google, HTC Vive, Oculus, Samsung, and Sony, and articulates as its mission and goal:
…(to) develop and share best practices for industry and foster dialogue between public and private stakeholders around the world.
The goal of the Global Virtual Reality Association is to promote responsible development and adoption of VR globally. The association’s members will develop and share best practices, conduct research, and bring the international VR community together as the technology progresses. The group will also serve as a resource for consumers, policymakers, and industry interested in VR.
The key takeaway from the organization’s founding is that 2017 will likely be the year that major, established technology giants define common production standards and user policies, and the pivot away from startups accelerates. As Jon Wiley, Director of Immersive Design at Google, is quoted on the organization’s website, “The GVRA is a necessary first step toward ensuring great VR experiences for everyone, through collaborating on research and sharing best practices as the field grows and evolves. We look forward to working with our industry colleagues.”
Will there be startups, similar to what Oculus was before Facebook bought the Kickstarter-funded project for $2B U.S. in 2014? Yes, but the likelihood that they’ll play a role in shaping the industry will diminish as the GVRA brings the industry – and what tech users interact with, and how – into clearer focus.
4. VR content development accelerates
The Achilles’ heel of any platform will always be its “stickiness,” or degree to which it can not only capture a user’s attention, but hold it for a significant length of time. You could have the snazziest-looking store exterior in the world, but if there are few – or worse, poor – products, all the glitz in the world won’t separate consumers from their hard-earned cash. Sure, they’ll poke their heads in the door, but after a quick glance around, will leave, and probably won’t return unless lured by considerable effort and expense.
In VR, as with many other digital platforms, the “stickiness” factor will be defined by content, and how users interact with it. Both components have created significant drag on mainstream adoption. Look for that to change in 2017.
Desktop computers powerful enough to accommodate the programming power that VR applications require are now debuting, including Dell’s XPS Tower Virtual Reality configurations. As such desktop computing environments become commonplace, more programmers will have the ability to create applications for industries as diverse as public safety, data visualization, and education. E-commerce VR pioneer Wayfair have already developed and demonstrated dynamic uses of VR technology with their home design application, allowing users to customize outdoor spaces with furniture and décor. As more organizations follow Wayfair’s lead and take advantage of an increasingly democratized VR software and application development environment, look for the number and variety to increase. In fact, as of last summer, 200,000 developers had registered to build apps – and that’s just for gaming apps for the Oculus Rift.
As with any predictions, take these with a grain of salt. While it’s anyone’s guess how large the profits will be and by when, there are strong indications that the major players are committed and the race is on, to not only sell hardware and software but build and host the common VR social environment. And while this year’s version of the ultimate global gadget fest, the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), appears to offer no major product announcements, watch for more dynamic new VR experiences that hint at developing use cases, such as 20th Century Fox’s The Martian Experience, developed for CES 2016 to promote the interplanetary science fiction epic and offering a tantalizing hint at the future of cinema. As with the actual quest for Mars, we’re very much at the outset of what promises to be an equally compelling journey into the virtual world and 2017 hints at strong steps forward.