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Volume 20 No. 42
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Doubts persist on future of virtual reality

From the consumer electronics show in Las Vegas

Intel used CES to outline ambitious VR plans for the Winter Olympics.
Photo by: INTEL
The experience delivered through virtual reality is just that, a simulated re-creation of some other place. But the debate around how big VR can become, and growing impatience with the current state of the technology, is all too real.

VR, particularly as a mainstream consumer play, was again one of the focal points of last week’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, which grew to a record 2.7 million square feet of exhibit space. Foremost among the bevy of VR-related announcements, particularly in sports, was Intel’s news that it is producing more than 50 hours of live VR content and on-demand replays from next month’s Winter Olympics in South Korea.

The move, complete with a variety of viewer-controlled camera angles from many events, represents Intel’s largest push yet into VR sports content, and couples the technology giant’s status as an International Olympic Committee sponsor through 2024.

“Fans won’t just witness the moment. They will experience it, as if they’re actually there,” said Brian Krzanich, Intel CEO.

Intel’s effort, and other sports VR productions also heralded at CES, will no doubt drive further consumer adoption of VR. But beneath the Las Vegas glitz and splashy announcements was a troubling undercurrent that VR is still not growing fast enough, and instead may be outpaced by its technological cousin, augmented reality.

Technology market analysis firm Canalys estimated that more than 1 million VR headsets were sold in the third quarter of 2017, the first time that mark has been reached in a single quarter. But that number remains dwarfed by 383 million smartphones and nearly 55 million TVs sold globally during the same period, according to data from Gartner Inc. and IHS Markit, respectively.

Virtual reality, of course, remains a comparatively much newer and more immature technology. But bullish predictions in many corners of a meteoric rise in VR consumption soon after Facebook bought Oculus in 2014 have yet to materialize.

And even more problematic to many sports and technology executives is the current form of VR hardware. Even as more sports-related VR programming is steadily being developed, and graphics and picture quality continue to improve, consuming VR still requires putting on a pair of bulky goggles and having a largely solitary experience.

That isolation stands at odds with the highly communal and social nature of watching sports. And promises of embedding VR into something resembling a pair of sunglasses appears to still be at least several years in the future. Augmented reality, conversely, does not require goggles, and instead relies on a smartphone.

“I love immersive media, but I’m not sure how long it’s going to take [to reach mass adoption],” said former ESPN senior executive Marie Donoghue. “The user experience isn’t quite there yet.”

Amid the worry, however, there are some promising trends for VR advocates. Several manufacturers, including Oculus and Lenovo, are developing all-in-one headsets that do not require a clipped-in smartphone to help power the video.

“We are very enthused by a lot of the new all-in-one units we’re seeing come into the market and definitely think that’s going to help bring in a new era of consumer interest,” said Danny Keens, vice president of content for NextVR, the California-based outfit active in sports production in the enhanced format.

Also a key focus for many VR hardware and software developers is improving the social experience to make consuming immersive video less solitary. Many of the group-viewing features will include elements such as social media posts, audio connections and avatars of friends watching the same content.

“It’s important to remember that we’re really still in the first inning of what this will ultimately become,” said David Aufhauser, managing director for Intel Sports.

In the meantime, companies such as Intel and NBC are counting on major, mainstream sports events such as the Olympics to drive awareness of VR, just as they have in the past for TV technologies such as high-definition and 4K resolutions.