Last weekend, I had the opportunity to join our wonderful long term cardboard partner MR. CARDBOARD at their booth at VRLA 2017 in Los Angeles. We had been looking forward to showing off ZapBox to the AR/VR community for quite some time and hoped to observe an amplified version of ‘The Zappar Rush’ in the faces of some of its first users.
At any AR or VR event, the one question that I’m always asked is, “which do you think is the future, augmented reality or virtual reality?” At Zappar we label this misconception ‘R-Wars.’ The reality is that the forces of AR and VR have no need to compete. It’s never been a case of either or, as each medium caters to completely different occasions.
2. There’s a growing divergence between AR & VR
After seeing some of the incredible technology on show at VRLA 2017, there also seems to be a growing divergence between AR and VR.
To name a few things I walked past on my quick lap around the VRLA floor, I saw: VR zorbing, VR drumkits, large-scale dune buggy simulators rigged with VR headsets, a VR treadmill, a multiplayer VR experience (it looked a bit like Tekken 2) and plenty of other massive scale setups I didn’t get a chance to explore. You’ll have to forgive me for the oversimplified descriptions, unfortunately, I didn’t get a chance to try out or chat about most of the tech on show. None of the equipment I saw seems to be concerned with the mass market (at least not yet).
The most successful applications of augmented reality last year were served from smartphones. Pokemon Go and Snapchat brought AR to over a billion people on the devices people already owned. Facebook & Snap Inc. made announcements this week to reaffirm their focus on bringing AR to the mass market through their existing apps. Unlike the majority of VR companies, Facebook are looking towards new technology and content within existing devices rather than any new hardware.
3. The VR industry is still wrestling with input and presence
I’ve often heard that the two problems the VR industry is scrambling to solve are input and presence, and that viewpoint was certainly reinforced at VRLA. When it came to inputting into experiences, I saw everything from swords, to gesture control, to motion-capturing suits. The issue of presence was being addressed by taking ‘room-scale VR’ one step further with external simulators like the aforementioned zorbs, treadmills, bikes and dune buggy simulators. The aim of these VR setups is to presumably help the user not only visually embrace his new world, but to physically feel it.
4. The VR industry is focussed on quality over accessibility & affordability
When it comes to VR, it’s not too hard to guess what the end goal is. Anyone who has seen The Matrix should have some understanding what the ‘promised land’ might look like for VR. First, they’ll need the user to feel a genuine presence in his new world. I’m not talking quite ‘Neo’ level omnipotent control, but certainly, more than the HTC VIVE currently provides. Second, they want to empower the user to be able to affect outcomes in the experience with a seamless input mechanism.
As immersive and visually impressive as many of the experiences were at the event, this was all high-end and expensive hardware, serving experiences designed for a fixed at-event environment. It still feels as though we’re a long way away from the technology being in our homes like TVs currently are, and based on what I saw at VRLA, the industry seems far more focussed on increasing the quality of experience rather than increasing accessibility & affordability.
Jeremy’s expertly created graph on the hardware on show at VR.
5. VR Brands are still aiming for the ‘promised land’
Last year was said to ‘be the year of VR’ (although I think I’ll hear that at least five more times in my lifetime), with affordable, smartphone-compatible headsets becoming readily available online and in retail outlets. This led a huge number of brands and broadcasters bringing out VR apps and experiences, which, for the most part, seemed like a knee-jerk reaction to the technology’s foray into the mainstream. From my experience at VRLA, hardware providers are already looking way beyond smartphone VR. There doesn’t seem to be much interest in developing a new and improved affordable VR solution. Instead, there’s a scramble to reach the aforementioned ‘promised land.’
6. Mobile-based Augmented Reality should still be ‘snackable’
When it comes to mobile-based augmented reality, the level of the experience is always going to be proportionate to the supported devices, which (certainly with Zappar) is the majority of smartphones. Mobile-based AR is by no means challenging the level of experience offered by the high-end VR setups, but instead looking to offer bite-sized entertainment or infotainment experiences to anyone with a smartphone. It’s a brand new way to interact with the real world and display content, and it’s accessible right now with the device that’s already in your pocket. What made Snake, Flappy Bird and Candy Crush so great was how accessible they were. They were free, easy to learn and, most importantly, readily available on your phone. They were never competing with fully-fledged games like Call of Duty because they offered a different type of engagement and were played by a much wider demographic.
7. Affordable Mixed Reality still needs to find it’s place
ZapBox at VRLA
ZapBox, our affordable Mixed Reality offering was also taken for a spin at VRLA. Although not the perfect environment, there were still some key takeaways.
Along with the small space and dim lights, it wasn’t easy having gaming/technology savvy kids pick up ZapBox’s cardboard controllers after coming from an HTC VIVE and asking “what’s this game?” The juxtaposition of various mixed AR and VR experiences at massively different price points makes for a challenging conversation. The speed dating nature of VRLA led to some interesting questions from users, as well as some confusion.
So if it wasn’t the kids at VRLA that saw the instant appeal of a mixed reality solution that would cost their parents less than they’d spend on a t-shirt, who was interested in ZapBox?
Basically everyone else...
8. The potential for Affordable Mixed Reality is HUGE
I spoke to developers, teachers, doctors, artists, toy manufacturers, event organisers and a few guys from the Google Cardboard team (we’re naturally big fans), and the response was absolutely phenomenal. People honestly could not believe that it was $30, and we kept hearing “wow, the potential for this...” and “finally, something I can actually afford”.
It definitely helped that we were in an environment where the cheapest hardware was probably the HTC VIVE (which costs around $800). Many people asked about potential use-cases. We have lots of ideas for different applications and experiences, but we love hearing the thoughts and ideas of industry experts and potential end users. In particular, we cannot wait to see the reaction from the developer community and the content they create using ZapWorks.