For the first time since being introduced to the market, over one million (yes, that’s 1,000,000+) VR headsets flew off the shelves in a single fiscal quarter.
This is a historical milestone for hardcore gamers, and a perhaps eye-opening moment for casual players who might not be as familiar with VR.
With sales at an all-time high, there’s no arguing that the market for virtual reality (VR) headsets is heating up. First thought to be a “fad” or gimmicky piece of tech, professionals within gaming and other industries are now changing their tune, touting functional VR as a technological breakthrough that could impact any number of industries and change our daily lives for the better.
Before We Dig in too Deep, What Exactly is a Virtual Reality Headset?
Sure, we’ve all heard about “virtual reality”, but how does the headset come into play, what does it do, and what can you expect when strapping it on?
First off, let’s cover the basics. A virtual reality (VR) headset is a device (much like a beefed-up pair of goggles) that you strap to your head. Inside the behemoth goggles we find a pair of LCD or OLED screens, one for each eye. This gives you a huge range of view and completely perfect 3D depth perception. Think I-MAX, only your seat is hovering up in the middle of the cinema and the screen is visible all around you. Even if you look down you will see a new Virtual Floor, it’s impossible to overstate how amazing this effect is.
The headset also includes an internal array of fancy Ironman gadgets, including accelerometers, gyroscopes and structured light systems, in addition to more mundane items such as stereo speakers.
It all sounds like rocket science (and some of it is) but all it really means is the headset can perfectly detect your movements and translate them into the virtual world; you really feel like you’re there. See the Boxout for quick explanations of these technologies.
Accelerometer – In simple terms, an accelerometer is a device that measures directional movements.
Geek talk: Accelerometers measures “proper acceleration” by interpreting the rate of change in velocity.
Gyroscope – Simply a spinning wheel or disc that is free to rotate on its axis, basically, it can sense which way is down.
Geek talk: Gyroscopes are used to measure or maintain angular velocity and orientation.
Structured Light System – This gets complicated but really it just uses light sensors to track your position and translate it into VR. The cheaper systems such as Samsung Gear VR lack this technology, it’s more of a high-end feature.
Geek talk: Structured light refers to the process of projecting a pattern, often using horizontal bars or a grid. The degree to which these patterns distort when hitting a designated surface is used to calculate the depth and information regarding other objects in the scene.
All of This Sounds Great, but What is VR Being Used For?
When most of us think about VR we immediately default to gaming, but VR is so much more. Virtual reality is now taking a front row seat in a wide range of industries and applications, from healthcare, to education, to military and defense.
We’re just now entering an era when VR is being used in practical applications, and early results are demonstrating that VR headsets clearly have enormous potential to shape the future for many fields.
Let’s take a quick glance at how VR is shaping the landscape in just a few industries:
- The Dentist Office
VR headsets are now being employed by dentists to ease the anxiety and pain of your next office visit. A recent study published in SAGE Journals and headed by five independent UK Universities found that patients who were provided a coastal/beach scene via a VR headset reported “significantly less pain” as their counterparts not equipped with VR.
- Employee Training
With most organizations spending an average of over $1,208 to train an employee, it’s no wonder companies are looking towards ways to decrease costs, enhance the learning experience and drive employee engagement. Most recently, Walmart has collaborated with VR startup STRIVR to help employees work through real world scenarios that they may encounter in the workforce. Walmart employees that are part of this new program can now experience firsthand in a VR environment a major spill in an aisle that needs cleaning, or the stress of a holiday shopping rush.
- Paraplegic & Physical Therapy
With over 5.6 million paraplegics in the United States alone, VR may be the next frontier in helping this struggling group of patients.
A recent year-long study carried out by Duke University found that VR can have a major impact on recovery and adaptation to the use of artificial limbs. Patients using VR to simulation athletic activities such as running across a soccer field were able to regain limited brain functions associated with motor function of their legs. Astonishingly, out of the eight study participants,100% gained back some motor control, and 50% were upgraded from “total paraplegic” to “partial paraplegic”.
- Treatment of PTSD and Anxiety/Panic Attacks
One traditional form of treatment many doctors and psychiatrists employ involves “exposure therapy”. This type of therapy encourages patients to “relive” their traumas by visualizing it occurring in their head. VR is now being used to further simulate these traumas for patients, and in the case of military PTSD, re-enacting battle scenes, gun fire, etc.
- Medical Training
VR provides a safe and controlled environment in which medical students can carry out “mock” surgeries and procedures, perfecting their technique and learning from mistakes without ever risking harm to a patient. Educators can also throw unexpected scenarios and stressful situations at students to help them react in a calm and calculated manner.
- Pain Treatment
Physicians are now able to use VR as a form of “distraction therapy” to help individuals manage pain they may experience undergoing treatments or while carrying out physical therapy. In a landmark 2011 study on military burn victims, letting them play a VR game while listening to music proved more effective than morphine in managing their pain.
- Social Skill Development for Autistic Individuals
The University of Texas has developed a groundbreaking program that utilizes VR headsets to aid children and young teens with autism develop a foundation of social skills that will help them develop into well-adjusted adults. VR allows educators and researchers to place kids and young adults into situations such as dates or job interviews, helping them understand how to pick up on social cues and respond appropriately.
- Business Services and Applications
Forget video chat and Facetime. VR is the new hot class of tech to hit the business scene. From virtual interviews and tours, to reducing the need for travel, VR is set to hit the B2B market hard and fast.
- Architectural and Engineering Designs
VR headsets will allow professionals to “live” and tour inside of a not yet built building or construction space, utilizing computer or hand generated images and drawings to virtually map out a digital space. Simulating real world spaces will reduce costs, increase safety and improve design processes.
- Vehicle Safety & Test Drives
VR will help auto manufacturers test the safety of new designs in a safe environment, and auto dealerships will be able to take customers on virtual test drives without ever leaving the lot.
So, Who’s Leading the Pack When It Comes to VR?
Over 86% of the entire virtual reality headset market is comprised of Sony, Oculus and HTC.
Out of those three, Sony has positioned itself as a pack leader. Sony has bolstered their reach and sales by integrating VR into their already wildly popular PlayStation console, thus eliminating the need for consumers to purchase, or configure, high spec PCs.
For a quick comparison, let’s look at the most recent sales figures for Q3:
- Sony – 490,000 units (or ½ of total sales volume)
- Oculus – 210,000 units
- HTC – 160,000 units
While Sony currently has the lead in the consumer market, don’t count out their competitors just yet. HP, Acer, Lenovo, Dell and Asus have all launched their own VR headsets, capitalizing on their already established market and distribution channels, and largely focusing on B2B applications.
Further, current research conducted by Canalys has demonstrated that for the consumer market, high price points have been a major deterring factor. Meaning that general consumer adoption of VR is highly dependent on price.
To that point, Oculus listened, and temporarily reduced their unit prices to $399, dramatically driving up their sales figures. Piggybacking off of this newfound information, Oculus is scheduled to release Oculus Go, a stand-alone headset priced at $199 sometime next year, hoping that this new “budget friendly” headset will excite first time users and drive adoption of their platform.
What’s Next in the World of VR?
Virtual reality is sure to continue its projected growth, with new headset options, applications and software set to hit the stage in the coming months and year.
However, there is one other alternative that is gaining attention: augmented reality. Augmented reality, or AR for short, is a direct or indirect view of a real-world environment whose elements have been modified or “augmented” by a computer-generated sensory input such as video, sound, or graphics.
While virtual reality replaces the real world with a simulated version, augmented reality can be used to enhance current reality by enriching your experience with the world. Like VR, augmented reality is being looked at closely by businesses, science, and education, medical and other industries for possible integrations.
While no clear “winner” has yet been determined between AR and VR, it is highly plausible that both become major contenders moving forward, with each having its up and downsides depending upon the real-world application intended.
It will be interesting to see where 2018 takes us in terms of VR, but one thing we can say for sure is that the future of virtual reality is looking pretty bright.