Will VR replace the smartphone?

  • Irfan Qureshi

Based on a panel discussion on the same topic at GeekGirl Conference 2016 (#GGM16).

Anyone familiar with the tech scene would be hard-pressed to deny that VR has been the trend word in 2016. It has been coming up now and then in the past few years but more so in the past 12 months than before. In fact, even a quick Google Trends search confirms this.
Even though it is trending now, it has been in existence for a long time, and what it promises is very extraordinary, and perhaps that is why tech companies and innovators have been pursuing it for so long. Put on this headset, go nowhere, and be transported anywhere. VR tech has been in the news in the 50s, 60s and the 90s but it never took off because of multiple reasons – hardware was too big, graphics weren’t realistic, the cost was too high, end-results were disappointing, etc.
1962 - There was the Sensorama
  • 1990 -  MIT launched Presence to cover virtual environment research
  • 1993 – SEGA released VR glasses
  • 1995 – Nintendo released Virtual Boy
  • I could talk about the history of VR for a long time but let’s focus on the future of VR. I recently attended a GeekGirl panel discussion on the future of VR*. For those who don’t know, GeekGirl is a network, for and by, women and girls interested in all things tech, design and startups. GeekGirl events give you an opportunity to expand your network, knowledge and learn about female role models in the industry. This panel on VR was one of the sessions in the annual GeekGirl Conference.
The panellists were:
  • Samantha Kingston - @k_samantha1 (moderating)
  • Kim-Leigh Pontin - @kimleighpontin
  • Luciana Carvalho Se - @LCarvalhoSe
  • Alyssia Frankland - @breaking_fourth
  • The panellists seemed to unanimously agree that VR in one form or another (AR, mixed reality, etc.) would eventually replace our smartphones. You can watch that discussion on The FutureHeads youtube channel.The rest of the article is a credit to the knowledge of the panellists and I’ve thrown my thoughts in there as well.
Why is VR finally taking off?
It seems that up until 2015, VR was going through what Gartner calls the trough of disillusionment. Nintendo failed in the 90s, some would say that Google failed more recently with Google Glass.One of the main reasons it’s finally taking off is because it has become more accessible and affordable on a mass scale compared to the earlier attempts (Google Glass was £1,500). Also, current technology is portable enough with photorealistic graphics that there’s also mass appeal. Being affordable and mass-produced are the first steps to creating accessibility. Think about it - you can now use your smartphone for VR (Samsung VR, Google DayDream).Having a VR-ready computer at home is also within most people’s reach, whether you are a hobbyist PC builder or just want to buy a pre-built VR-ready PC. You also have the weight of the tech giants behind it – Google, Microsoft, Facebook and Samsung.Finally, compared to the past, we now have more content for different uses.
  • Gaming – Most likely to be the primary use and there are a lot of games already.
  • Education – Much of the current nascent foray into VR-based learning has centred on hard sciences — biology, anatomy, geology and astronomy — as the learning opportunities are notably enriched through interaction with dimensional objects, animals and environments. (Alchemy VR, zSpace etc). Education will probably be the second largest use of VR. Think about it – when you experience something yourself, you can remember it more easily than reading about it
  • Medical – Training simulations for ER, Dentistry, treatment for PTSD, if you consider Augmented Reality (AR), there are even more uses!
VR is an encompassing experience and removes you from your current location, to replace the smartphone, wouldn’t AR be a better bet?
The labels, AR and VR, are already applied to different degrees of the same thing and visual displays will obscure normal vision more or less depending on the application and use at hand. If you are gaming, your visuals will change to VR, if you are navigating your way through a new city, then AR will be more preferable. 
So in a sense, yes, AR will be more preferable for most daily tasks that don’t obscure our sense of sight or hearing.An amazing video on Vimeo demonstrates how AR/MR could be used on a daily basis to replace smartphones. It also shows the darkside of the digital world, i.e. identity theft! A great watch.
How would marketing and advertising operate in VR?
That’s a big unknown, primarily because it’s a growing industry and most marketers haven’t found a reason to allocate their budget for it. However, some big companies are already discussing it’s uses. Virgin Media’s Head of Digital Marketing, Gill Worby, and OMD’s Technology Innovation Director, Sam Battams will be discussing this at ad:tech on 3rd November.Victoria Buchanan, creative director at ad agency Tribal Worldwide, part of Omnicom Group Inc. said “People want to try before they buy or feel before they touch. This is going to be vital in getting people engaged.’’One thing that seems obvious is that marketers will need to tread really carefully. Because VR is immersive, consumers will be less forgiving of a bad VR ad than they would of a poorly made TV commercial or banner ads on the internet. We already have ad blockers deployed by millions across the world because of how advertising is used to deploy adware or ruin our browsing experience. Perhaps VR will give marketers a chance to start with a clean slate. Maybe it’s just my wishful thinking.
VR and the risks it can bring.
There are always pros and cons of any technological advancement:
  • 1. Video game fanatic hunts down and stabs rival player who killed character online
  • 2. Chinese gamer dies after playing World of Warcraft for 19 hours
  • 3. Number of identity theft victims 'rises by a third'
  • And we all probably know about government spy programmes
Short of becoming Eeyore and claiming VR will unleash a dystopian future (speaking of which, have you seen Uncanny Valley?) there are potential issues that tech businesses should anticipate.
Security: Not all virtual environments are created equal when it comes to protecting information and communications. Will greater immersion lead to greater identity theft?
  • Privacy: Will VR be used as another means of unsanctioned mass state surveillance?
We, here and now, have a responsibility to take VR forward in the right way and not allow militarisation or abuse of the absolute control over people's senses.
Will VR be the ‘final platform’? Will it replace smartphones and 1. become the only device we have on us at all times?
“I believe it’s going to be more ubiquitous than the smartphone” - Palmer Luckey, founder of Oculus.
Palmer’s thoughts were echoed by Alvin Wang, China regional president of HTC VR, “2016 is the first year of VR, and the revolution is happening,” Wang said. “Welcome to the post-mobile era, where the production and sales of VR devices will surpass smartphones. The coming 20 years will be the era of VR.”The panel at GeekGirl agreed. Granted it probably won’t happen very soon, but it seems inevitable. It seems bold to predict the demise of smartphones – a device that ships today by the billions but imagine 10 years ago trying to envision the way we use mobile phones today. It’s impossible. That’s the promise VR has today.To succeed in becoming the successor of smartphones, Kim-Leigh Pontin argues that VR gear will have to:
  • 1. Become more affordable
  • 2. Shed its reliance on tethered PC
  • 3. Miniaturize in size further
These future VR devices have to work better than current phones, be small enough for people to feel comfortable and fashionable wearing them, on their face (that’s if cybernetics doesn’t become mainstream). The current headset model has been around since the 90s (VFX1 headset) and will eventually be replaced. This means a major shift in fashions and it will take time for product designs to win over such widespread public acceptance. However, this doesn’t seem too far away, keep in mind that not more than 40 years ago we had Pong – a game with a stick and a square pixel. Now, we have photorealistic games that can be played on mobile, and multi-screen devices! It doesn’t seem unlikely that once we shrink VR wearables down to an acceptable level, that we will start seeing everyone wear them at all times.
This article was originally published on the Futureheads Recruitment website.