Inside VR - December 27th, 2019

Inside VR (Dec 27th, 2019)

Top immersive tech stories for 2019


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The present and future of virtual reality news and technology

If it’s true what they say that time flies when you’re having fun, then 2019 must have been a really good year for immersive tech, because here we are already gearing up to ring in a new year. Literally, where has this year gone?

Still, it has been such fun looking back at all the milestones we’ve experienced in immersive computing over the past 12 months, and I actually had a hard time picking these ones to share again with you.

These stories are ranked in no particular order and are a mixture of some pretty momentous stuff that has happened in the industry and a sprinkling of use cases that illustrate how these technologies are already impacting every aspect of our lives.

When taken together, a pretty compelling picture starts to emerge of the paradigm shift towards spatial computing, and as we look back at the last year and wrap up another decade, it’s a reminder of how far we’ve come, and what’s in store for the future. Will the 2020s finally hail the age of XR? I think they very well might, and hopefully, we’ll stick together on that journey. Happy holidays!

– Alice

P.S. We’re taking a break on our regular newsletters through Jan. 1, so see you next year!

The Oculus Quest was a hit

At this year’s year's E3 conference, Facebook's Vice President of Special Gaming Strategies Jason Rubin told audiences that the Oculus Quest was seeing "console-like" engagement from users, selling $5 million worth of content in first 2 weeks since the device started shipping back in May. In fact, the device sold out at retailers such as Amazon, Walmart and Newegg. Since then, Facebook has continued to roll out new features such as native hand tracking and Oculus Link, which allows users to experience PC VR HMD quality on the standalone headset. By October, it was reported that Oculus Quest sales were responsible for significantly boosting the company’s non-advertising sales, which jumped to $269 million during the third quarter, a 43% year-over-year increase. “Quest is growing and doing quite well. We’re selling them as fast as we can make them, the demand has been strong and the content is starting to pick up,” Mark Zuckerberg said at the time.

HTC Vive Retires

This year said goodbye to the headset which was largely responsible for enthusing people about the possibilities of VR in recent years. The HTC Vive was phased out in October, replaced by the Vive Cosmos, which was priced at $699. But although industry pundits such as Venturebeat’s Dean Takahash called the new HMD an "engineering marvel" it came with a number of difficult trade-offs in terms of cost, visual quality, accessibility, and mobility.

Bumpy Road For Magic Leap

As the year draws to a close, things are looking rather worrisome for what is arguably immersive tech’s most hyped-up company. First came the news that the company had signed control of its patents to JPMorgan Chase as collateral, closely followed by announcement of a new funding round, culminating with key resignations from high-profile executives including CFO Scott Henry and Senior VP of Creative Strategy John Gaeta (a special effects industry veteran who has worked on movies such as The Matrix). Magic Leap then announced it was pivoting towards enterprise customers following damning reports of extremely weak sales. Taken together, this could signal challenging times ahead for the start-up and possibly have a negative knock-on effect on the AR industry as a whole.

Cows Like VR, Too

Dairy farmers in Russia started testing Virtual Reality on their dairy cows. According to Sarah Webber, a Research Fellow in Human-Computer (and Animal-Computer) interaction at the University of Melbourne, there is little evidence that the cows appreciated the content on the same level as we might, but argued that seeing animals interacting with technology could positively impact their lives by changing our perceptions and creating an empathetic bond between people and animals.

Google Ends the Daydream

The key message to come out of Google I/O this year was that the company largely abandoned its plans to push forward the development of headsets and content for VR effectively retiring the Daydream and focusing on Augmented Reality features for the Google Lens instead.

Trippy VR

The 'Cyberdelic Incubator' in Melbourne, Australia, is promoting a more conscious approach to technology through immersive media. The group’s lead Carl H Smith told the Guardian that XR’s power to instigate empathy can help us create more meaningful human connections, allowing us to experience what it’s like to be another gender or to have a mental health condition such as schizophrenia. One of the incubator’s projects “Death is Only the Beginning” even went as far as simulating a near-death experience, and was subsequently adapted for use with palliative care patients. 

Immersive Masterpiece

Visitors to the Mauritshuis museum in Holland were able to use AR to step into Rembrandt’s haunting painting “The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp” which was painstakingly recreated - with actors standing in for each character in full period costume and makeup - and captured with 600 reflex cameras to produce 3D scans. The intention, says Dutch design agency CapitolaVR, was to 'create a portal to the past, to the moment the painting was created."

 #MeToo 

The words of sexual assault survivor Chanel Miller were brought to life with an AR project undertaken by her fellow students at Stanford following a dispute with the university about how her ordeal should be memorialized. The "Dear Visitor" guided AR exhibit placed her own words, spoken in court, on the spot of the attack she suffered. “It goes beyond what a physical plaque could do,” says Hope Schroeder, a graduate who was part of Stanford’s augmented reality club, 4 AR/VR that developed the project.

Sony's Next Move

Although the PSVR has proven to be the most commercially successful VR hardware to date - selling over 4.2 million units so far - there are high expectations that its next-generation headset will bring significant improvements including wireless connectivity. At the same time, the company has also signaled that it is not ignoring the Augmented Reality market, launching a frankly awesome AR location-based Ghostbusters experience back in October.

 Valve's Long Game

In June Valve released its Index headset priced at a hefty $999, which got mixed reviews for providing a good experience but only under very controlled circumstances. In short, the headset was hard work to set up properly and not very user-friendly. But the company’s ace in the pack was yet to be revealed in November when it announced that its new Half-Life game would be released as a VR exclusive in 2020.

 Nintendo Dips its Toes Into VR

Arguably the best-loved company in gaming, there is always excitement whenever Nintendo starts to dabble with VR, and the success of the Labo kits was proof that the company could actually have a better chance of enticing the average consumer to engage with immersive tech than some other bigger players in the space, not least because they still hold the IP for some of the world’s all-time most popular games such as Super Mario and Zelda, both of which were supported in VR.

Virtual Immortality 

A $2.5 million project funded by the Dallas museum and created by Steven Spielberg's USC Shoah Foundation immortalized holocaust survivor Max Glauben as a hologram able to share his WW2 experience with future generations. The project involved a week of filming, during which Glauben was captured answering over 1,000 questions by 18 cameras placed at 9 different angles.

Rising From The Ashes

Following the devastating fire at Notre Dame cathedral in Paris, visitors turned to VR to experience the magnificent building and its destroyed iconic spire. Several virtual tours remain available, highlighting the potential of such immersive technology to help preserve at least the essence and significance of historical monuments for future generations.

Talk Show Fun

Jimmy Fallon has proven to be a bit of a VR champion, showcasing it in fun ways on mainstream media. In April the Tonight Show host played Beat Saber against Captain Marvel star Brie Larson, followed by a hilarious game of Virtual Reality Pictionary with Kristen Stewart, Gaten Matarazzo of "Stranger Things."

Holographic performances

Artists have embraced immersive tech with gusto in 2019. Bjork launched her Vulnicura VR album, David Bowie's "Ziggy Stardust" character was brought to life with real-time motion capture technology and Madonna performed at the Billboard Music Awards alongside no fewer than five of her Augmented Reality personas. Meanwhile, Facebook hosted a concert by GRAMMY award-winning singer/songwriter H.E.R. and Dean Takahashi tested an app that let him remix AR audio at a live Elton John concert.

Virtual Worship

Churches across the US are embracing technology, including conducting whole services in Virtual Reality.  “We are leaving the information age and entering the experience age of VR and AR,” said D.J. Soto, pastor of VR Church, where roughly 150 avatars regularly attend services in AltspaceVR. Soto believes these virtual churches are much more inclusive, allowing for conversations to happen which would be difficult in physical places of worship.

Snapchat

Snap has emerged as a major player in the AR space thanks to its popular filters and lenses, even releasing a Gucci-themed version of its proprietary spectacles hardware. Most significantly, however, 2019 has seen a creative community start to grow and earn substantial revenues around the format. AR lenses were used to promote blockbusters such as “X-Men: Dark Phoenix” and “Joker” or the new latest adaptation of Philip Pullman's "His Dark Materials" as well as indie films such as Borley Rectory which turned users into a character from a classic ghost tale for Halloween.

Training for Just About Anything 

By far the most compelling use case for immersive tech at the moment is in training and simulation, and those applications are virtually endless. From teaching firearms safety to Kentucky gun owners to helping train police in identifying cases of human trafficking or teaching veterans how to cope with hostile job interviews, all the way through to a “Thief Simulator” (which does exactly what it says on the tin) and even an active shooter training which was deployed in the Walmart Academy experience to help its employees prepare for such scenarios following recent shootings.

 Losing One’s VRginity

No technology can be considered successful if it doesn’t attract use cases in the adult industry, so it is actually encouraging to see stories emerging such as that of porn company VRBangers charging couples around $15,000 to make their own naughty VR movie, or of Anna Petukhova, a Russian fashion model and entrepreneur who launched a global franchise of VR sex clubs called VRayu, which caters equally for men and women looking to explore their sexual fantasies in a safe virtual environment.

Shut Downs and Acquisitions 

One notable casualty in the AR ecosystem this year was Daqri, which shut down in September in spite of raising $275 million in overall funding. There were also some significant acquisitions in the space, such as Jaunt XR being bought by Verizon, and Apple acquiring UK start-up Ikinema.

VR Therapy

University of Barcelona study documented the therapeutic effects of virtual body swapping. Results showed that subjects holding conversations with themselves – while inhabiting an avatar of Dr. Sigmund Freud - showed improved mood compared to talking about problems in a virtual conversation with pre-scripted comments. Researchers believe that this method could be a useful tool for clinicians in future.

MacGyver Escape room 

MacGyver creator Lee David Zlotoff teamed up with “Lawnmower Man” director Brett Leonard to create a VR escape room experience called MacGyverWorld slotted for release in 2020. The experience will use 3D capture technology, which scans participants as they enter a location-based VR venue so that friends can see each other as holograms and work collaboratively.

HoloLens Army

A version of the HoloLens designed for military use has been tested by the US Army earlier this year, following an announcement that Microsoft accepted a $480 million deal to supply thousands of HoloLens units to the army, in spite of strong objections from many of its employees. The system – which is still in prototype phase and is not expected to deploy until 2022 at the earliest - also collects data to highlight areas that need improvement and further training. 

Minecraft 

After releasing a teaser trailer in May and unveiling the first gameplay footage of “Minecraft Earth” at Apple's conference in June, Microsoft proceeded with gradually rolling out what was arguably the most anticipated AR title of 2019 with a Beta version released in several cities including London and Seattle in July, followed by broader public releases in the following months. As of the end of November, the game had reportedly surpassed 2.5 million downloads.

This newsletter was written and curated by Alice Bonasio, a journalist and consultant obsessed with the immersive technology space, including AR/VR/MR/XR and any other acronyms that fit into the realities spectrum. Over the past 15 years, Alice has advised a wide range of start-ups and corporations on digital transformation and communication strategy and is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Tech Trends. She also regularly contributes to publications such as Quartz, Fast Company, Wired, Playboy, The Next Web, Ars Technica, VRScout and many others. Follow her on Twitter @alicebonasio

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