Virtual reality is actually here – again.
In recent decades hot new virtual reality technology has periodically bubbled to the surface, triggering predictions that VR was poised to take the world by storm. But it never happened.
Now, however, a new wave of VR hardware at affordable prices is viewed as so compelling that businesses across the spectrum – from startups to behemoths – have begun to explore how they can use this technology to engage customers and other audiences in an unprecedented way.
“There’s a lot of people calling this the year of VR,” said John Reites, head of digital health acceleration at pharmaceutical services giant Quintiles.
Market research firm IDC projects that shipments of virtual reality devices will increase from fewer than 400,000 units and revenue of less than $100 million in 2015 to 9.6 million units and $2.3 billion in revenue this year. That includes mobile headsets that are powered by smartphones as well as “tethered” headsets that are wired to a PC.
The market is being driven by relatively inexpensive devices such as the smartphone-powered Gear VR, which sells for less than $100 on Amazon, said Lewis Ward, research director of gaming at IDC.
“You can do decent VR on a smartphone that is affordable to perhaps billions of people around the globe,” Ward said.
Interest is so high that Research Triangle Park Virtual Reality, formed two years ago as a meet-up group for people psyched about VR, today boasts about 600 individual members and 20 startups, said Alex Grau, who’s a managing director of the organization. Monthly meetings, which include speakers, have been attracting 75 to 100 members.
There’s no hard-and-fast definition of VR.
“It depends on who you’re talking to,” said venture capitalist David Gardner of Cofounders Capital in Cary. “I think virtual reality is something that creates a sense of presence. It’s not me looking at something, but it’s me actually being in the environment.”
Examples include 360-degree video – where, no matter whether you look up, down or sideways, you remain in a virtual world – and an environment in which actually walking, step by step, translates into walking in an alternate reality.
To be sure, the “vast majority” of VR devices that are sold this year will be used for games, said Ward.
At the same time, however, companies of all sizes are exploring ways that VR could impact their businesses. Here’s a look at four companies in the Triangle, including Quintiles and Lenovo, that have delved into VR.
Quintiles is working with customers – that is, pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies – on ways they could use VR to their advantage.
Reites anticipates that “a small group” of Quintiles customers will take the plunge later this year.
Some of the VR applications the Durham-based company is discussing with customers are confidential, but one area where Quintiles sees great promise is patient recruitment for clinical trials.
Quintiles is the world’s largest contract research organization, or CRO, working with drug makers to design and manage clinical trials of experimental medicines and analyze the results. The leading cause of delays in clinical trials is the failure to recruit sufficient patients in a timely manner.
VR is ideal for recruiting patients for clinical trials, which involves obtaining informed consent after notifying patients of the potential risks, because it’s so vivid that patients are not only totally engaged but they retain what they learn, Reites said.
With the help of Horizon Productions in Durham, Quintiles also has created a VR demo for customers because, even though the technology has been generating a lot of buzz, most people haven’t experienced it for themselves.
The 360-degree video starts with you, the patient, sitting in a hospital bed while two physicians outline what’s ahead. Then it takes you on a trip that includes a Fantastic-Voyage-style trek inside the body and floating in midair alongside a helicopter.
Afterward, a common reaction from customers, said Reites, is: “Could I do X, Y, Z? It’s spurring innovation, it’s spurring people to think differently because they are different when they take the headset off.”
Lucid dream, a startup creative shop that opened its doors in Durham at the beginning of the year, is trolling for business clients looking to market themselves VR-style.
“We’re a production studio. We help build sales and marketing tools, essentially in the same ways that a web design studio or a mobile studio builds applications and builds web experiences,” said Joshua Setzer, co-founder and chief commercial officer. “We build virtual reality experiences.”
Lucid Dream is especially targeting businesses such as commercial and residential real estate developers and makers of heavy machinery that sell products that can’t be moved from site to site or aren’t even built yet.
Realtor Keith Bliss of Bliss Real Estate Group in Cary has experienced the demo produced by Lucid Dream that enables the user to walk around a luxury two-story condo and get a real feel for the space – as well as enjoy the view on the deck.
His reaction: The future that he’s been reading about for years is finally here.
“The possibilities are amazing,” Bliss said.
One obstacle Lucid Dream faces is that people who have tried earlier iterations of VR are skeptical about how effective it can be. But those who have experienced the latest technology are quickly won over, said Mike McArdle, co-founder and chief experience officer.
ReverbNation co-founder and CEO Mike Doernberg has decided that the promise of VR is too great to ignore.
“You always ought to be spending 5 to 10 percent of your time thinking about what’s next,” Doernberg said. “I believe that virtual reality is something that we should be exploring and I believe if I have my way – which I don’t always get my way, believe it or not – we should actually be introducing some products in the market.”
ReverbNation, which has about 75 employees and generated $17 million in revenue last year, operates an online site and offers software that helps music artists connect with fans, promote themselves and distribute music online. It also provides a suite of services that nurture musicians’ careers.
Given its online orientation, ReverbNation wants to create a VR experience that isn’t limited to wearing special goggles.
“Any sort of viable, scalable VR solution that we might provide needs to have a companion on a traditional computer (or) mobile phone,” Doernberg said. “You need to be able to watch it on a regular display.”
The upshot is that ReverbNation has been exploring, with the help of Lucid Dream, what kind of VR experience it could offer. It now has a prototype of a VR concert that puts the viewer in a 360-degree venue where the artist is performing – and which also highlights an array of promotional materials, such as the band’s Facebook page and images of their albums on virtual walls.
Lenovo’s new smartphone using Google’s much-anticipated Project Tango technology, which is scheduled to be launched Thursday, includes “virtual reality elements,” said Jeff Meredith, general manager and vice president of the company’s Android and Chrome computing business group.
Tango, Meredith predicted, is “a technology that is going to allow AR (augmented reality) and VR to become more of a mainstream technology.”
Meredith, who is based in Morrisville, spearheaded the development of the new phone, which will be the first to incorporate Tango technology as well as the first phone released in the U.S. market under the Lenovo brand. Lenovo is based in China but has a headquarters in Morrisville.
Sensors in the phone will enable it to react to the user’s every movement – forward, backward, side to side. That function can be used to navigate through a shopping mall or museum, which Lenovo demonstrated earlier this year at an art museum in Barcelona, Spain.
“It actually maps the footsteps that I need to take,” Meredith said.
The Lowe’s home improvement chain also plans to release an app that will take advantage of Tango technology.
Not only will consumers be able to use that app to find merchandise in a Lowe’s store, the chain will also offer 3-D models of, say, bathroom vanities that you can use to literally visualize how they would look in your home. And you’ll be able to precisely measure the space in your home with the app to make sure that the vanity not only looks right but is the correct size, Meredith said.
And, of course, you’ll be able to play VR games on the Tango as well.
Games “will move to a new level with Tango,” he said. “You’re in a three-dimensional space. It notes where you are. Thus the game can take place all around you.”