Virtual-reality devices: Ready, headset, go

New VR headsets are being launched, but the technology’s appeal is uncertain

Cheaper than getting divorced?

THOSE trying a virtual-reality set for the first time can be transported to the top of a skyscraper at night. Stepping up to the edge, they look down on the bustle of the city, far below. If he is standing nearby, Brendan Iribe, the boss of Oculus, which makes virtual-reality headsets, likes to dare people to jump. But many, including your correspondent, are too fearful: it feels like they really are teetering on the brink.

Whether consumers can be convinced to leap unflinchingly into buying their own virtual-reality device is another question. On November 20th Samsung, which makes smartphones and other gadgets, will start shipping a new version of its headset, called Gear VR, which it is producing in collaboration with Oculus. Its price tag of around $100 could give it broad appeal. But consumers will soon have many other options. Google already offers a $5 virtual-reality viewer, Cardboard, in which a user’s smartphone provides the screen. In early 2016 Sony and HTC will release more expensive offerings aimed at video gamers, as will Oculus, which was bought by Facebook for $2 billion last year.

In the near term virtual reality will appeal most to serious gamers, who are keen to immerse themselves in elaborate fantasy worlds, even if it means wearing daft-looking goggles. Next year around 3m virtual-reality units will be sold worldwide, predicts Jupiter Research, which tracks the industry. By 2020 consumers might buy 30m, generating more than $4 billion in retail sales of devices. However, the manufacturers are likely to make bigger profits from taking a cut of the programmes and games sold on their platforms than from the low-margin business of selling headsets, says Jen-Hsun Huang, the boss of Nvidia, a firm that makes electronics for them.

Even to enthusiastic gamers eager for the next big thing, virtual reality still has kinks to work out. It often makes users dizzy. The sound and pictures are pretty good, but the technology is not yet fully able to replicate the sense of touch, even though most equipment-makers offer some sort of touchpad that lets users grab and release objects. Users do not have a sense of their own presence, or their friends’, when they wear headsets. As a result virtual reality today can feel like “a very lonely experience,” says Mr Huang.

Hollywood studios, expert at creating appealing fare, are just starting to experiment with virtual reality. 20th Century Fox, which made the film “The Martian” about a stranded astronaut, has made a short virtual-reality experience based around it, to be released next year. Since the image in virtual reality is 360˚, and the viewer, not the director, controls where the focus is, it is a very different art form. Virtual reality “blows up a hundred years of artistic rules about framing a shot,” says Michael Schroepfer, Facebook’s chief technology officer. Studios will need to decide how much they want to invest in what is still an emerging technology. They will not have forgotten how 3D films failed to live up to their early promise, because audiences did not like the hassle of putting on glasses, or the higher ticket prices.

However, firms in other industries believe that virtual reality has potential to change their businesses and the way they interact with consumers. “People are valuing experiences more than things,” says Raja Rajamannar, chief marketing officer of MasterCard. The credit-card company is discussing how it might use virtual-reality technology to give customers insights into places they would like to visit and hotels where they could stay. Advertisers and even newspapers (see article) are thinking of how to use it to reach people in clever, attention-grabbing ways. Ford is using Oculus headsets to help its designers see what new cars will look like before they are built. Industries that train through simulation, from aviation to medicine, will derive clear benefits from virtual reality.

However, improving experiences with the aid of new technology is not the same as making a business out of it. Many believers in virtual reality’s potential compare it to smartphone technology, which took decades to become mainstream. The firm most likely to benefit from virtual reality’s rise is Facebook. If it gains traction, and Oculus continues to be the leading innovator, then the social network will look farsighted. If it never does, it was merely a $2 billion bet gone awry. Tech firms have lost far more trying to predict and package the future.

Article source: http://www.economist.com/news/business/21678797-new-vr-headsets-are-being-launched-technologys-appeal-uncertain-ready-headset-go?fsrc=rss

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