As seen in Global Corporate Venturing, May 2015 issue.
Most of us are fascinated by virtual reality. Who hasn't cringed about being virtually stuck in the 1990s of The Matrix or dreamed up their own "destinations" for Star Trek's Holodeck?
Now, the promise of VR appears to be growing closer to, well, reality. Recently, Silicon Valley Bank brought together VR hardware and software developers, entertainment companies, academic researchers and 60 investors to pollinate ideas for moving VR from fiction to fruition.
VR got a huge boost in public visibility after Facebook's $2bn acquisition of VR pioneer Oculus last summer. Other corporate players, including Samsung, Sony (Project Morpheus) and HTC (Vive), have also been working on highly anticipated plans to introduce VR to the masses. And VR startups are popping up, the most promising of which are attracting significant attention from top VCs and digital entertainment players. Not surprising when you consider the market for VR hardware and software market is anticipated to top $30bn by 2020, according to Digi-Capital.
While the entertainment corporates are focusing on advancements to woo consumers – after all, they are in fierce competition to draw eyeballs with cutting-edge offerings – I was particularly struck by some of the non-entertainment uses that are ripe for VR.
VR research is offering new 3-D methods for treating vexing medical conditions, delivering new educational platforms, training professionals engaged in high-stress situations like pilots, surgeons and soldiers. It is also enhancing the way we communicate and socialize. A lot of work has been done in recent years to make VR experiences more convincingly evoke human sensations – making the reality more "real" (without the nausea!).
Standing (virtually) next to Paul McCartney at Madison Square Garden, thanks to Jaunt, was pretty special. But the experience WEVR shared of an underwater encounter with a blue whale was so realistic that even the sardines in the ocean moved as you touched them. Coming out of the experience back into a small dark room seemed oddly depressing.
The next big wave for VR will focus on applications and content. Oculus, after being acquired by Facebook, launched an in-house studio – Story Studio – staffed by former Pixar and Industrial Light & Magic veterans. Their first movie debuted at this winter's Sundance Film Festival.
In other cases, we are seeing startups partnering with entertainment leaders that have large distribution channels to develop new types of content to entice consumers. Samsung's Matt Apfel, vice president of strategy and creative content, is charged with filling the content pipeline for his company's recently launched Milk VR. It's an app connected to a Samsung head monitor display (an HMD made by Oculus) and run on a Galaxy S6 phone. In addition to sports, music and celebrity interviews, Samsung has commissioned an original series for VR from The Walking Dead's David Alpert.
Matt told us that Samsung is casting its net wide to tap the most advanced startups: "We are doing everything from creating content with them, we have a group doing a lot of investing in VR and helping companies operationalise."
Other active corporate venture players include Comcast Ventures, Sony, Sky Broadcasting and HTC, all of which plan to integrate VR into their full suite of services – ranging from TV to gaming to amusement parks. Sony and HTC also have introduced HMDs. Google Ventures is interested in creating a social VR ecosystem, going beyond the augmented reality of Google Glass. Microsoft Ventures is looking to benefit from VR operating systems and platforms, initially in gaming. And Intel Capital and Qualcomm Ventures are making investments to power these platforms with latest-generation chips.
Sporting events are another natural fit for VR. Aside from the adrenaline-boosting offerings, I also was impressed by the opportunity to harness human psychology to create experiences that can have far-reaching consequences. Dr. Jeremy Bailenson of Stanford University's Virtual Human Interaction Lab, for example, is allowing people to see how their carbon footprint is contributing to ocean acidification. You become the pink coral and watch in fast-forward until the coral (and you) disappear.
Other applications we saw: Learn Immersive has developed an interactive foreign-language learning platform that enables teachers and tutors to create virtual environments to encourage students to socialize with other users and receive tutoring from native speakers – similar to The Sims role-playing video game. The Matterport 3D camera and storage platform enables virtual walks and tours around properties, a handy tool for real estate professionals. AltspaceVR is developing a videoconference system that creates more engaging and realistic ways to collaborate in work settings.
For me, the most inspirational story came from James Blaha. James had suffered vision problems since childhood and, using the Oculus Rift and a VR software game he developed, he taught himself to see 3D for the first time. Now his company, Vivid Vision, is testing the system in partnership with the University of California at San Francisco to cure amblyopia (lazy eye) and strabismus (crossed eye), and pilots with optometrists are starting. His view is that children, in particular, may engage more readily in treatment if they see the therapy as a game. Additionally, there is ongoing research into an area known as Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy to develop VR-based treatments for PTSD, for example, and into using VR to help patients with cerebral palsy and autism.
When it comes to promise of VR, seeing certainly is believing.