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Was 2015 the year of virtual reality or not?

google cardboard vr virtual realityWhen 2015 kicked off, many people had high hopes that virtual reality (VR) would finally become mainstream. And by that I mean VR content and devices would be readily available, at reasonable prices, and the experience would be good enough to drive adoption by the masses (that’s you, me, and most of our neighbours).

Now that we’re halfway through December, it’s safe to say VR hasn’t met those criteria this year. But that doesn’t mean their hasn’t been movement, it’s just been more of a slow rumble instead of a viral must see experience. That could all be about to change though as we head into 2016. Here’s a look at some of the forces working to make virtual reality an everyday activity.

Google. Of course.

In 2014, Google handed out a bunch of cardboard to attendees at their I/O conference. Underwhelmed at first, the attitudes of everyone changed once they figured out what it really was: Google Cardboard – with a capital C.

Cardboard is a simple to construct device, headset really, that when paired with a smartphone lets you experience 3D video as well as virtual reality video. What really makes it different from other virtual reality headsets is that it is made of fairly common items, most notably cardboard.

It can be purchased for around £16, or you can download instructions and build one yourself. It’s all part of “democratising” as Kurt Wilms, a YouTube VR senior product manager, said in a Cnet article. YouTube is accessible by just about everyone on the planet (government censors withstanding) so by making such an inexpensive device they believe everyone will have access to VR technology – all you need besides Cardboard is any Android smartphone and the Cardboard Android app (plans for an iOS version have been announced but no timeline given).

This is compared to many other headsets on the market, and expected on the market, that run for hundreds of pounds in addition to needing a compatible smartphone.

Of course, the device itself is just half of the problem when trying to make VR mainstream. You still need content. And Google, via YouTube, has recently solved that problem too. They announced plans to make every video posted on YouTube available on the Cardboard app. That’s every existing video and future videos. Now you can watch anything in Google’s VR version. But not every video will be as immersive, or even 3D, as content created specifically for Cardboard. But Google has plans to make them all still look great in VR.

In the Cnet article, Wilms also discussed making tools to create true VR video available to developers (many have already created games for Cardboard) and to video creators. It’s a great experiment to see where video can go in the coming years.

Disney, via Star Wars

But why wait to see what YouTube creators come up with years from now? As of December 2nd, you can see “a serialized VR experience designed for Google Cardboard” according to the Verge. It’s part of the promotion of Star Wars Episode VII movie release. Disney designed it to be connect to the opening of The Force Awakens storyline.

Generally speaking, when Disney does something it’s usually pretty awesome. Granted we haven’t yet seen what they will make of the next Star Wars movie (I’m counting down the days, are you?), but if their pre-launch content is any indication, I think it will hold up to the expectation of their awesomeness. But I digress.

The point is, Disney isn’t waiting for VR to become mainstream before diving in. They’re leveraging what Google has done with Cardboard to create content they know Star Wars fans will love. Though there aren’t official numbers, there are probably at least 100 million fans worldwide. And that might be conservative given the financial expectations of the new film (it’s predicted to take the biggest opening weekend and the global all time grossing records in, well, record time!). If even a fraction of that number tune into the Disney serial in VR on Cardboard, it could really be the kick-start VR needs to become something everyone wants and uses.

Facebook

Another giant Internet company is also betting on VR. In March 2014, Facebook purchased Oculus VR for $2 billion. Widely viewed as the leader in VR technology, Oculus VR has been working on a consumer VR device for years. On his Facebook post announcing the purchase, Mark Zuckerberg said “We have a lot more to do on mobile, but at this point we feel we’re in a position where we can start focusing on what platforms will come next to enable even more useful, entertaining and personal experiences.” It appears he’s either on the same page as Google when it comes to experimenting with the future of video, or doing his best not to fall behind.

Last month Oculus began shipping the first consumer headset called the Gear VR. It works much like Google Cardboard, only it’s a fancy, expensive electronic headset that only works with certain Samsung Gear smartphones. In the US it still sold out quickly even with the relatively high price tag. The Gear VR retails for around $99 or £66, but when you add in the cost of the phone (if you don’t have it already) the total is much higher. As of this writing it wasn’t available in the UK either.

Many of the reviews lament the lack of content for the Gear VR, even while praising the experience itself. The Oculus website mentions Netflix and Hulu as apps, but the initial reviews of Netflix VR were less than stellar. The issues relate to the virtual environment around the Netflix standard user interface rather than with the Gear VR itself. But overall the experience was immersive enough that one blogger said the press room he was in disappeared while watching a film.

And that’s one of the selling features of Gear VR. Take a look at their Facebook page and you’ll see lots of ads showing people wearing the headset in what would otherwise be distracting or potentially unpleasant places like a crowded airplane. If you’re brave enough to put on the headset in public, you’ll be able to forget the public is actually there.

Looking ahead to 2016

All these companies are going to be focusing on Virtual Reality in the coming year. A stand alone version of the Oculus, called the Rift will ship in the first quarter of the year. It will hook up to games systems or computers and will potentially have much more content than exists for the Gear VR. Facebook, being the world’s largest social media company is also exploring how to use it socially (so you aren’t escaping into your own reality but joining others there too!) which could be a driver for fast adoption.

Google has plans to let video creators who have large followings to come and create VR videos at specially designed facilities around the world. Add those to all the billions of hours of videos converted to VR (for better or worse) and the world may never look at video the same again.

And finally Disney is heavily invested in VR. Rather than describe it, you can watch this video to see how a group of Disney and other companies are joining together to use VR in their creation process as well as the final end products for consumers.

I love the idea of virtual reality. But I don’t love the idea of spending a ton of money on such a new technology. That means there’s only one solution: I’ll build my own Google Cardboard and download the apps to experience it myself. Technically speaking it may not be the same experience as the Gear VR or Rift will provide, but it’s a really cool place to start while the industry sorts itself out and the prices fall.

Oliver Burt

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