With the global smartphone market slowing, gadget makers such as Apple, Samsung and HTC are seeking the next growth engine for their businesses.
Amid these efforts, consensus seems to be emerging that virtual reality or VR technology could be the new big frontier and game-changer for the industry.
VR, which helps people have an immersive experience by transporting them virtually to places in the real or an imagined world, has been around for a while. But the technology needs to go mainstream and companies have to figure out how to make money from it.
Industry observers are confident that it is only a matter of time before the formula is cracked, giving rise to a multi-billion dollar business segment.
Realizing the potential opportunities, leading tech firms have already outlined plans and ambitions for VR-related business.
According to iResearch Consulting Group, the global market for VR devices is expected to reach US$30 billion by 2020. Big names like Google, Facebook, Samsung and HTC were among those that have expressed interest in the VR market.
The latest to join the fray is Apple, which is in urgent need of finding another big hit product as its current revenue pillar iPhone appears to have reached a peak.
When was asked about VR technology, which uses goggles to strap a screen to your face and displays images that make you feel that you are in a computer-generated world, Apple CEO Tim Cook said recently: “I don’t think it’s a niche. It’s really cool. It has some interesting applications.”
The US tech giant has reportedly been building prototype VR headsets for months, but there is no clear information on whether the devices would encase an iPhone, like Samsung and Oculus’ Gear VR and Google’s Cardboard, or be a standalone unit like the Oculus Rift or HTC Vive.
For smartphone makers, it could be great for them to link a VR device with their mobile devices. That should help lower the price for the headset to boost its penetration.
For example, Google is pushing Google Cardboard as its virtual reality technology gateway riding on smartphone as its content and applications platform. The cardboard device is a headset made with cardboard but with a dedicated lens for users to watch the content. Users need to put their smartphone in front of the cardboard lens to enjoy the VR content.
Of course, using the cardboard to experience VR has a limitation, given that the cardboard itself does not have its own audio system, relying instead on the smartphone audio. That may affect the user experience if the content is sound-based. Otherwise, the cardboard can deliver a 360-degree video experience via the lens.
It could be better for users to experience the reality via a dedicated headset, as its full audio and visual experience can bring a completely different experience rather than be restricted by screens when using phones and computers.
Taiwan smartphone maker HTC Corp. is betting on such headset after unveiling HTC Vive last year. The headset is scheduled for public pre-order on Feb. 29 at the price point US$599 each. The headset is jointly developed with US virtual reality content developer Valve.
The alliance should ensure that the Vive headset will have sufficient supply of content for users to experience the “reality” experience.
HTC has kicked off a roadshow in various markets to show off the Vive headset and related content — mostly game titles involving shooters, puzzle games, rhythm games and space-themed games.
The Taiwan firm is also looking beyond the personal entertainment application as it seeks to tap potential opportunities in enterprise solutions in areas such as surgery and education.
“You can imagine a patient being able to see arteries and blood cells inside the brain with the help of a VR device. It will be easier to convince them to go in for a surgery,” HTC chairwoman Cher Wang said in December.
She added that VR technology can be adopted by car sellers and apartment designers as well.
According to Wang, German luxury car brand Audi will install HTC Vive in its flagship stores in China this year. This will help customers see the car models from different perspectives.
Wang positions Vive headset as a natural extension to other connected devices, and sees VR as much more important compared to the smartphone. That’s the reason why HTC set the tag line of Vive “This is real”, showing the product ambition to change the way people interact with technology.
When compatible devices are in place, VR will need content to boost usage. The business model of HTC Vive points to good collaboration between hardware and software development.
Sony, a leading game console maker, is also in a good position for the new technology as the company can develop VR compatible titles for the dedicated device.
YouTube, the world’s biggest video sharing portal, also plans to roll out live streaming of 360-degree video.
All in all, there’s no doubt that content will play a crucial role in determining the success of VR.
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