Virtual Reality Becoming More Mainstream

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Virtual reality is taking a few steps closer to the mainstream with Samsung unveiling a headset that brings the technology to its latest smartphones at half the price of its previous model, Facebook launching support for 360-degree video, and online video services like Netflix and Hulu jumping into the format.

Samsung said its new virtual reality headset will be 22% lighter and cost $99, half the price of its previous model. The Gear VR requires users to insert the latest version of a Samsung smartphone into the headset, and will ship in November.

Netflix content is available to be viewed in Oculus or Samsung headsets now, while Hulu said it would also bring its app to the Oculus platform where users can stream 2-D content. Meanwhile, Oculus said it would begin a certification program so consumers can look for a sticker that will identify which computers support its Oculus Rift headset, which is due to come out early next year.

 

VR Goes Hard Core

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I’ve been touting the importance of Virtual Reality for a long time now. It is, I firmly believe, the next big thing to hit all of us. There is a growing band of hardware producers coming out with headsets of differing sophistication, the games guys are charging ahead and there have been some interesting applications emerging recently. The killer app for VR just showed up, and, as predicted, it’s porn.

The adult industry has always driven the online world. Pretty much every innovation you could come up with, from online payment to HD streaming, was brought to us in good part by porn. The latest wave is starting to break over VR, and like it or not, it’s going to be a major driver for this industry.

The poster children for this innovation are a sex toy manufacturer called Lovense and an online VR porn studio called Virtual Real Porn. Neither gets major points for naming, but the product combination is fascinating. I haven’t tried either, and likely won’t, but the story is compelling.

The Porn studio dreamed up its own tech to film convincing VR porn, and the sex toy guys came up with devices that guys (ahem) plug into which generate physical sensations that coordinate with the visuals. Supposedly, the combined impact is remarkable. Why bother? Well, traditional porn relies on the point of view of the director. You simply see what the camera sees. In a VR deployment, you are essentially watching the action and can (to some extent) move around it to catch the action at different angles. What makes VR different is the fact that it generates “presence.” It fools the mind into thinking that you are actually there. Apparently, even in this early iteration, the impact is real.

Neither of these companies is making mainstream news, but then when was the last time you heard a story about the traditional porn industry (short of condom use and HIV scares). Globally, the adult biz is worth about $100Bn annually with the US contributing about $13Bn (that’s just a touch under what the magazine industry is worth). Those are huge markets, and especially given that the customers of this industry skew heavily male (and maybe geeky?), I’d expect adoption rates to be through the roof pretty quickly.

There’s a Brit TV comedy from the late 80’s called Red Dwarf. It’s a brilliant (if patchy) SciFi spoof, and one of its more compelling story-lines involves the Better than Life VR system. Essentially, you plug it in and you can be anything you want. You can date Marilyn Monroe, climb Everest, fly to the moon; all you need is enough credits on your system.  The unexpected side effect is that people become addicted to BTL more quickly and permanently than crack cocaine, leading to societal collapse. A recent survey of young men concluded that in many cases, guys would rather play games and watch online porn than actually put the effort into forming relationships with real women. Oh, dear. This may not end well.

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Scan Your World, Then Live in It

Untitled-1As Virtual Reality inches close to an everyday reality, we need clever people coming up with the components to make it real and useful. One of those groups has just received a large chunk of venture funding, and I’m delighted.

These guys have come up with a clunky-looking camera, which can scan the interior of your house (or pretty much anything) quickly and cheaply. It’s fairly expensive to buy; at $4,500 per it’s not exactly discretionary income level. But it’s fast, and the subscription rates and monthly fees are really reasonable. They are predictably targeting the Realtor market, thinking that having a fully realized high definition virtual interior will make selling upscale property that much easier. Panoramic tours of property are not new, but fully navigable VR 3D at this price point and availability probably is.

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It’s also a fascinating opportunity for museums and galleries that can offer an easy-to-navigate, high-quality virtual tour on any browser. The results are very easy to navigate and understand; if you can use Google Maps Street View, you can use this. It’s supposed to be compatible with VR headsets. I haven’t have the chance to experience that yet. I can imagine game developers must be salivating at the prospect of being able to digitize in 3D and physical location. If they can get access to that location one time, they can build an immersive experience around it and populate it with virtual people.

What’s exciting is that these guys, Oculus Rift, Google, GoPro and many more are coming out with VR implementations that make sense and are reasonably affordable. Non-individual deployment is the full solution, but each step takes us closer.

VR Fans: It’s Essay Time

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It’s about now that I wish I’d spent time developing a strong YouTube presence rather than developing a company or having a life. Google is looking for YouTube stars to test out their new Jump rig, which is essentially 16 GoPro cameras bolted onto a lazy Susan with software to stitch the video together into a 360 experience. It’s not quite true VR, but it’s an interesting, relatively low budget way of moving the concept forward.

What Google’s doing, in true Google form, is asking end users like you or me to fill out an application form to be one of those early creators. There’s a bio section, a short questionnaire and the all-important essay section, where no doubt bearded hipsters and their female equivalents will try to pitch the perfect combination of approachable elitism and cuteness we have come to expect from things like Google commercials. There will be hundreds wanting to take the rig up in a plane and jump out; there will probably be virtual safaris and virtual tea ceremonies and kittens.

Since I don’t have nearly enough social juice to qualify, I’ll save my breath to cool my porridge (as my dear mother would say). But here’s what I’d apply for:

I’d put the rig on a shoulder-mounted harness and go visit places like Rio at peak Mardi Gras, or the Red Light district in Amsterdam or Bangkok. I’d strap a rig to a Seal team member doing ISIS interdiction. I’d cut a deal with a leading NASCAR or F1 team and follow an entire race season. Let’s put a rig on the pitcher’s mound at Yankee stadium. Sure, I’d base jump and water ski with it, but I’d also put it on the Dakar Rally and tour the Vatican and Machu Picchu. Let’s get a rig on the set of Game of Thrones and let’s see how that gets put together.

Then I’d make every adventure available online as they happen. Anything that gets VR moving into our mass consciousness has got to be a good thing. Let’s not waste cycles being cute and elitist; let’s get the people what they are actually interested in ASAP. A bread and circuses approach, which plugs right into the things which we already care about enough to buy season tickets and airfares to do will move the dial much quicker. Google, please let’s not be Silicon Hipsters about this. Let’s do something that people actually care about.