Signs that virtual reality is on the verge of taking off

By: | Published: February 2, 2015 12:04 AM

Major technology and media companies are investing heavily in virtual reality, a signal that the experience may soon be ready for mass consumption

Ready or not, here comes virtual reality. Gaming was the focus of the original Oculus Rift headset, the virtual reality viewing device that set off the recent wave of interest in the technology. But now companies like Samsung, movie studios and Silicon Valley start-ups are racing to create new types of video experiences for virtual reality—and in some cases, even the cameras they will need to film it.

“The videos, the games, the phone, the operating system: Everything needs to be from scratch to make this work,” said Nick DiCarlo, who leads the virtual reality efforts at Samsung. It is “really the dawn of a new era,” he added. But really, where are we with the development of virtual reality?

At first blush, virtual reality is a hard sell. You must wear a big, clunky headset that is either connected to a powerful computer or to a phone. You choose from a sparse selection of videos to watch and hopefully don’t suffer motion sickness as you soar through landscapes, physically turning your body around and looking up and down at the scenes around you.

Also, there are few headset types from which to choose. The most famous name in virtual reality, Oculus, which was bought by Facebook last year for $2 billion, has yet to release an actual consumer device. The best virtual reality headset you can buy at the moment is the $200 Samsung Gear VR—actually built in partnership with Oculus— which requires you to also own a Samsung Galaxy Note 4 smartphone. The headset works by inserting the phone into the front of the goggles, and the phone acts as both computer and screen.

For a cheaper and more universal experience, Google created a template for Google Cardboard—virtual reality goggles made out of cardboard that will fit most any phone. Like the Gear VR, you slip a phone into the headset to get started. A few companies sell them already made for $10 to $45, or you can follow Google’s instructions and build your own from readily available materials.

Microsoft recently announced an augmented reality headset called HoloLens, which may come out this year. Augmented reality is slightly different from virtual reality because it lays virtual elements on top of the real world instead of taking you into an entirely contained experience. Google has invested more than $500 million in Magic Leap, a company that is also working on augmented reality technology.

Once you try virtual reality, even despite some technical and visual drawbacks, you can easily imagine that watching short videos, playing games or interacting with friends would be fun, immersive and transporting. It’s truly a new form of entertainment—once there’s something to watch.

And content is coming. Last week’s Sundance Film Festival, for example, featured a slate of virtual reality films that included immersive news programming from Vice, and a short companion film to the movie “Wild,” created by Fox Searchlight Pictures, that lets viewers stand on the trail alongside the movie’s star, Reese Witherspoon. And 8,000 Google Cardboard headsets were handed out so festivalgoers could watch.

Oculus announced a new division within the company called Story Studio, which is dedicated to creating computer-generated virtual reality films that respond to what the user does. At Sundance, Story Studios showed its first film, a project called “Lost,” whose length changes depending on what the viewer does within the experience.

Jason Rubin, head of content at Oculus, said the company would continue to work on games and other virtual reality content, in addition to computer-generated video. “Entertainment will be the cornerstone in the short run” to the rise of virtual reality, he said.

To create the entertainment, though, new hardware is needed. That is where some Silicon Valley start-ups are stepping in. One, a company in Palo Alto, Calif., called Jaunt VR, introduced a short monster movie at Sundance called “Kaiju Fury,” which was created in a partnership with New Deal Studios. Jaunt VR makes a 360-degree camera that uses 16 heavily modified GoPro lenses inside a 3D-printed shell to film scripted movies and live events like concerts.

So far, the company has filmed the monster short, a World War II story called “The Mission” and footage of things like BMX biking, a Golden Gate Bridge tour and the Eiffel Tower, among other experiences. Jaunt said its next step was to build a high-end camera that it would like to license or rent to future virtual reality filmmakers. Some of those films could eventually show up on Milk VR, a service that Samsung announced at the International CES trade show in January, which will deliver streaming and downloaded virtual reality video to owners of the Gear VR headset.

Despite the rush, virtual reality is still a couple of years away for most people. Streaming a live event is daunting: Video files created by cameras with 16 or more high-definition lenses are huge, up to hundreds of gigabytes. New technologies will be needed to easily move that much data.

By Molly Wood

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