Virtual reality dominates Mobile World Congress

At Mobile World Congress, smartphones are traditionally the superstars of the show – but this year Virtual Reality (VR) got heads turning and tongues wagging as manufacturers seek new ways to entice consumers in. But take away the glitz and hype and where are the real business applications for these innovations?

What’s new in the VR world?

Almost every smartphone manufacturer revealed their VR plans this year, either at CES in January, or at MWC in Barcelona. There are VR headsets aplenty queuing up and vying for consumer spend, including the much-heralded Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive. The latter’s key feature is mobility, in that it allows the user to stand up and walk around the room. Both require powerful PCs to run them.  There is also the LG lightweight VR headset, powered by the LG G5 smartphone, and the Alcatel Idol 4S, dubbed the ‘VR in a box’.  Users simply need to insert the Idol 4S smartphone into the VR headset to begin using preloaded apps and videos.

Big guns are backing VR

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg used Samsung’s Gear VR event, that was streamed live in 360 virtual reality video, as a platform to outline his company’s own virtual reality roadmap. Samsung’s Gear VR mobile headset, which is powered by a Samsung S6 and S7 smartphone, uses software built by Facebook’s Oculus team, and Zuckerberg referred to VR as “the next social revolution”. Zuckerberg believes that VR will be the natural successor to online video.

Since Gear VR was rolled out in November last year, the take up has been rapid.  There are now more than 200 games and apps for the platform in the Oculus store, and over 1 million hours of video have already been watched in Gear VR. Facebook is building on this momentum and investing heavily in VR, and has announced a dynamic streaming technology that will deliver high quality images by only showing the pixels a user is looking at as opposed to the entire 360 video. Facebook is also working on VR for communication, which will allow users with VR headsets to share their virtual experiences.

To make sure there is content to watch on these headsets, both Samsung and LG have rolled out cameras that record 360-degree videos – 360 is essential to creating VR content and the 360 videos are designed to make the user feel that they are really there.  Both devices incorporate two cameras facing in opposite directions that basically record video through fish eye lenses.

Does business need VR?

With companies such as Sony, Facebook, Samsung and HTC getting in on the VR act, analysts believe VR sales will take off.  Juniper Research expects global shipments of VR headsets to reach 30 million by 2020, up from just 3 million in 2016.  The research company believes that technological advancements such as low latency, smarter graphics and the arrival of big players will see VR go mainstream.

“Beyond consumer applications, VR is beginning to show potential in many other areas, with a major footing in applications such as military training, and offering opportunities to areas such as medical and even nuclear facilities,” Juniper Research said in its report on ‘The Rise of Virtual Reality’.

Initially VR will be used for gaming and consumer entertainment, with games like Minecraft coming to VR, but Juniper believes that an increasing number of VR shipments will be used for business, such as simulation, training and troubleshooting installations. Hundreds of engineers are already working on Oculus/Facebook.

Marriot Hotels is already piloting a ‘VR room service’ in collaboration with Samsung Electronics America.  As well as VR systems being available to loan by guests, the hotel chain is offering ‘VR postcards’, which provide 360 degree 3D virtual reality tours of various destinations, from the Andes mountains in Chile to the busy streets of Beijing.

VR has also started to carve a niche in real estate, medical and training applications.  The University of Washington is experimenting with VR as a tool for pain management, while Stanford University is working on surgical simulation, enabling surgeons to practice on a virtual patient.  On an industrial level, Microsoft is working with Trimble to develop a hologram headset that will enable construction professionals to view projects in 3D VR.  "We have a mission to deliver solutions that transform the user experience and work processes in many industries," said Bryn Fosburgh, vice president responsible for Trimble's Construction Technology Divisions. "We believe that HoloLens is a game-changer for design and construction teams”.

“Although VR has its roots in personal use and applications, VR vendors have developed applications for many different industries. Due to higher profit margins, industry applications of VR may grow to become the primary area of development for some vendors,” commented Neo Zheng, Senior Analyst at IDC.

So for now VR is largely focused on the consumer market, but it is already taking root in business and the potential is enormous.  The progressive companies who take the first steps with VR will be responsible for shaping its industrial future. 

Stewart Baines
Stewart Baines

I've been writing about technology for nearly 20 years, including editing industry magazines Connect and Communications International. In 2002 I co-founded Futurity Media with Anthony Plewes. My focus in Futurity Media is in emerging technologies, social media and future gazing. As a graduate of philosophy & science, I have studied futurology & foresight to the post-grad level.