Facebook spent $2 billion for Oculus VR. The show floor at CES was crammed with companies like Sony and Samsung, along with mystery start-ups like MagicLeap, all racing to get a foothold in the virtual reality/augmented reality market. And just to make things interesting, we now have Microsoft, which jumped full-on into the AR/VR fray. Introduced in mid-January, HoloLens allows interaction with holographic images - so you can play video games, build 3-D models and have immersive videoconferences with colleagues. KZero, a global VR consulting firm, says the consumer VR market could be worth $5.2bn by 2018.
These are big numbers. Companies of all shapes and sizes are placing their bets on VR and AR. But the big question remains. What do we really want to do with it?
The military has already used VR successfully for many years for training purposes - from weapons and flight instruction, to simulated parachute jumps and medic battlefield exercises. Gaming seems logical as well. At CES, a demo by EPIC games using the latest version of Oculus Rift prompted one reporter to write "Hands down, this scene, the last of the new demo series, was the stunner and the one most likely to finally sway any remaining doubters regarding the potential of VR. The best way to describe this scene is to reference the now iconic 'bullet time' scene from The Matrix." (Did I mention our CEO, Bill Collis, created the bullet time scene from The Matrix? But I digress).
The devices that let us engage with the AR/VR worlds are only part of the equation. Yes, those devices must create a great user experience. But we must understand how people will want to engage; with what they'll want to engage; where they'll want to engage; how they'll want to engage; and for how long.
Underlying all of this is content. Whatever the location and whatever the setting, the content with which people engage must create the ultimate experience. In the consumer world, gaming remains the forefront, but other industries are rapidly gaining steam. Samsung, an early player, has teamed with Qantas Airline to provide VR headsets to passengers in first class long haul flights to watch. Meanwhile, the Volvo X90 Experience, a collaboration between the creative agency R/GA and Framestore VR, puts the user in the driver's seat of a virtual Volvo XC90 driving on a sunny road. This allows anyone with the app, which uses Google Cardboard, to test drive the unreleased flagship vehicle from Volvo.
Late last year, CNBC featured the UK's BSkyB VP for business development, Hilary Perchard. Perchard headed to Silicon Valley, looking for VR start-ups in Silicon Valley so Sky could stay current. For Perchard, the boom in VR will come as soon as 2016, 2-3 years earlier than first expected.
Therefore, it won't just be the likes of Facebook or VR goggle manufacturers such as Sony or Samsung that will cash in. There will be a veritable gold rush for companies creating these worlds that don't exist. In fact, Robert Hernandez, assistant professor of professional practice at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California, says "For me, 2015 is the year technology empowers content - whether creation or consumption. It's not the year of technology - it's the year of the content made on the technology." At the end of the day, VR and AR will only be commercially viable if they are believable.