The Oncoming Virtual Realty Explosion

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Palmer Luckey’s name precedes him. The magnificently intelligent (and rich) virtual reality wunderkind’s sale of his Oculus VR to Facebook has helped catalyze the shift within the virtual reality market from ultra-wealthy plaything to every day necessity.

From its inception, virtual reality was viewed as an enigmatic, but potentially fruitful outlet for entertainment – though the idea of total immersion within technology seemed to perturb more than just a few detractors. Many felt that virtual reality ran the risk of having its users become totally enveloped by the technology, not wanting to return to “actual” reality – think The Matrix or TRON. Granted, most of these ill-advised notions of virtual reality were heavily influenced by pop culture, but after decades of prophesying its arrival, the landmark year for consumer facing virtual reality seems to have finally arrived in 2016.

It’s been an arduous journey for VR to pass to consumer hands over the past four years – Luckey’s Oculus Rift launched its initial Kickstarter campaign in 2012, and at the end of 2015, the company had moved on to its third prototype, rather than rushing a straight to market device.

During that period, phone manufacturers have entered the mix, with Samsung premiering its Gear VR at CES 2015, but reactions remained mixed. Though admirable in their initiative, both versions fell short, with Gear VR sales flailing and Oculus remaining in the dev kit stage.

That being said, the door has been left wide open for other competitors to enter the field, and have even started to partner with various industry leaders to lead the way on VR content. Companies like Disney, HTC, NVIDIA, and Sony have since joined the VR mold, making what was once a novel gaming device a useful tool. In 2016, HTC plans to release its Vine virtual reality device, Sony its Project Morpheus, and the highly anticipated Oculus Rift – all of which promise to turn the entertainment world on its head.

2016’s VR rollouts will remain mostly within the gaming realm, where the industry has had its most research and money invested to this point, with most headsets likely out pricing current video game consoles. While gaming will be the first legitimate entry, the entertainment world has wasted little time in priming the film, live music, and sports world to be the outlets of VR expansion.

The recent 2016 Sundance festival saw the first serious, non-gaming application of VR. Hollywood is constantly looking for new, fresh voices to continue creating unique and individual stories, but VR provides not only the possibility of new stories, but quite literally, new perspectives. Rather than engaging the emotions of consumers, VR could not only engage viewers’ mentally, but also physically; with 9 VR projects at Sundance 2016 being some of the first to do so. The projects at the festival ranged from a full-fledged Mars mission from The Martian, where users essentially play through key scenes in the film, to serialized VR storytelling in Defrost, a first person POV VR drama from director Randal Kleiser, which tells the story of a woman who recently awoke from a coma. Granted most current virtual reality films and entertainment require accessory items to help heighten the experience, like a specially designed D-Box chair for The Martian experience, or a special interactive studio for Alex McDowell’s The Leviathan Project adaptation, which incorporates the visual experience, and prompts users to actually touch various objects in the studio, which are then incorporated into the story.

While film may have the most unique angle on adopting VR for entertainment, a couple of outlets that are effectively no-brainers have already begun to usher in the use of VR with their products – live sports (more specifically, the NBA in the United States) and music. In fact, the NBA (National Basketball Association) has already broadcast its first VR friendly game, way back at the opening night of the 2015-2016 NBA season. The game doubled as the season kickoff as well as the championship ring ceremony for reigning league champions, the Golden State Warriors, as they took on the New Orleans Pelicans. The game’s VR access was provided for fans that owned a Samsung Gear VR (an NBA partner) and footage was captured via NextVR for Turner Broadcasting (TNT). The game had mixed reviews, with limited visibility if a viewer were to turn too far one way or another, but all in all, the endeavor was a success. The NBA has been researching the integration of VR streaming into its broadcasts for the past two and a half years now, but don’t expect the NBA to stand alone for long – NextVR has expressed its vested interest in streaming NFL games, stating the company is “ready to livestream any event today.” It’s surely just a matter of time before the technology makes its way to football in the U.K.

Live sports are perhaps one of, if not the most logical outlet for VR, but music could have one of the most diverse – with application in pure entertainment as well as extending into education. Most public school programs have cut their music and arts departments due to increase expenditures, but with inception of VR, some enterprising music enthusiasts are taking the preservationist route. VR music education is a fairly underdeveloped territory at the moment, but there are already numerous studies and academic papers highlighting the potential for students to have access to lessons on virtual instruments, and even receive lessons from top musicians. On the more developed (and financially feasible) side, numerous artists have adopted VR as an outlet to extend their reach to fans that live in markets normally outside of tour routes. In 2014, Sir Paul McCartney partnered with Jaunt VR to simulstream his San Francisco tour stop in an immersive 360-degree experience. McCartney is not the only early-VR-adopting-artist, indie legend Jose Gonzalez released a music video, “Eyes in Space,” exclusively for Oculus Rift, making it one of the first VR music videos. Assuredly, McCartney and Gonzalez will not be the last artists to adopt VR, but they’ve already blazed a trail for the future of live music and album-side content.

While 2016 may be the first year of legitimate virtual reality products hitting retailers’ shelves, don’t expect things within the VR industry to slow down. VR sales for the year of 2016 are expected to top off around 14 million units sold, that number being divvied up between the likes of Samsung, Sony, Oculus, and HTC. Top tech firms like Google and Apple are expected to be developing VR units of their own, which are projected to increase 2017’s unit sales more than double that of 2016’s to 38 million. So while 2016 will be the year to brag about being the first of your friends to have a legit VR unit, things still have a ways to go until the market is fully developed.

Featured image courtesy of betto rodrigues / Shutterstock.com.