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Reality check

It’s been an exciting year for virtual reality, and there’s talk of the market exploding in the medium term. But what’s next for this technology, and does it make a wise investment?

8 November 2017 / Technology

Many people are calling this a transformative year for virtual reality and augmented reality. In 2016, we have seen the launch of several virtual reality (VR) headsets, which immerse users in a three-dimensional digital environment, mainly for gaming or entertainment. This was also the year when augmented reality (AR) – which overlays what users see with digital information – came to many people’s attention following the launch of the popular game Pokémon Go.

VR and AR could be a $150bn industry by 2020.

Other successful AR apps – including Golfscape, Cyclopedia and Star Chart – have launched in the last few years. Earlier in the year, Apple hinted that its interest in VR and AR is growing, as did social media platform Snapchat.

Predictions about the size of the market vary. Digi-Capital claims that VR and AR could be a $150bn industry by 2020; Goldman Sachs Research says it could be worth $80bn by 2025. But figures aside, most agree that as these technologies improve, they will become as disruptive and as ubiquitous as the internet and smartphones have been.

Not business as usual

Companies are already starting to use well-received virtual-conferencing and AR platforms for training. Some studies, including one this year by Dell and Intel, show that VR and AR could soon be commonplace for business meetings, training and presenting.

Heather Bellini, Business Leader, Telecommunications, Media and Technology at Goldman Sachs Research, says VR and AR will increasingly impact other sectors beyond gaming. “For example, in real estate, VR could enable you to virtually walk through potential purchase properties to save time,” she says. “In hospitals, it is used to train doctors and surgeons; and in schools to go on virtual field trips.”

David Nelson, Manager of the Mixed Reality Laboratory at University of Southern California’s Institute for Creative Technology, agrees that 2016/2017 will be a tipping point: because so many of the new VR headsets have sold out, they are entering homes like never before. However, he believes that in terms of user experience and wider adoption, we are still in the early stages of VR and even earlier in AR.

The failure of Google Glass highlighted a range of problems.

“[Our institute] figures out how to use them in areas such as health, education, training and learning,” says Nelson. “There have been some compelling projects. For example, providing controlled exposure therapy for post-traumatic stress disorder victims via VR is effective and promising. We think immersing people in that experience gives them a more visceral reaction; and, for entertainment, it can bring an element of magical realism. It also means you can explore a much larger virtual space than the space you are in. No other medium can do these things.”

There are still several barriers to VR and AR adoption, however. Prices of VR headsets are high and some people do not like the experience of wearing them. And the failure of Google Glass – which aimed to make AR technology wearable – highlighted a range of problems in areas such as privacy.

Looking to the future

Ken Perlin, Professor at the NYU Media Research Laboratory and Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences, believes that such concerns will reduce as people adapt to the technology. “Society has always found conventions to protect us – culture, law, neighbours,” he says. “It will find ways in the digital world too. There will be many exciting new uses in every industry and every part of life – from construction to navigation, even ordering food in restaurants. Furthermore, our children won’t need signs such as street signs because the information will be personalised in their wearables. The really exciting story will not be in the next three years, but more in the next 10 and beyond.”

“Much of the success will come from applications that save people time.”

Dmitry Tokarev · Chief Technology Officer

As AR and VR technologies merge, some are referring to them as mixed reality (MxR). MxR has attracted huge investment already – $700m in 2015 alone – and many mainstream investors are considering how they can benefit. Dmitry Tokarev, chief technology officer at Dolfin, says: “Much of the success will come from applications that save people time – that will be one important criterion for a good investment. For example, universities can become much more scalable by marketing their courses around the world through VR. It could save people thousands of hours in travel. VR conferences and business meetings are the same.”

But as Google Glass proved, choosing winners could still be difficult. Tokarev believes MxR investments should therefore fit into the small, high-risk section of portfolios; and the best way to benefit from the trend will be to choose an asset manager with specialist knowledge and a well-diversified portfolio of technology stocks.

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