Virtual reality is suddenly the flavour of the moment for anything from product launches to test drives. Now a gaming guru believes it will be the next billion-user platform. ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK explores.
In November 2016, iconic car brand Jaguar set the marketing world alight with the launch of its I-PACE Concept, an all-electric sport utility vehicle. Not because the car looked so great, but because the Los Angeles event was the world’s first live virtual reality unveiling of a new vehicle.
Five groups of 66 guests, at the launch venue and in a VR hub in London, were fitted with HTC Vive Business Edition headsets, powered by Dell Precision workstations. This gave them an almost photo-realistic experience of being inside the concept car and interacting live with other participants. The big deal? They could watch the concept built piece by piece around them while a live presenter explained what was happening.
Now, Mercedes-Benz South Africa has put together a series of virtual reality campaigns, working with animation agency Sinister Studio to develop four test-drive videos. The new Mercedes-Benz C-Class Coupé, E-Class, AMG C 63 and a new range of roadsters and cabriolets have all been given the VR treatment.
Suddenly, VR has moved out of the gaming and gimmicks realm to become a serious marketing option. The problem is that only a few people own VR headsets.
“In 2017, VR is a niche technology,” says Piers Harding-Rolls, research director of global research consultancy IHS Markit. “The market is going to grow, but it will still be a niche market by 2020.”
Speaking at the IFA global press conference in Lisbon recently, he said it would take three to five years for the technology to broaden its appeal.
As a result, it was startling to hear one of the gurus of the gaming world declare, earlier this month, that VR, along with augmented reality – which overlays digital information on the real world – would be “the next billion user platform”.
“We can expect a revolution in computer graphics to change the way people interact with computers,” said Tim Sweeney, founder of leading gaming software company Epic Games, part owned by Tencent – which is in turn part-owned by South Africa’s Naspers.
Sweeney was talking during a “guru session” at Dell EMC World, an annual event in Las Vegas, where he shared the stage with Frank Azor, co-founder of Alienware, an iconic gaming computer brand owned by Dell.
Azof shared Sweeney’s enthusiasm: “This revolution is not ten or 20 years away. Much like the PC industry in the 1980s, VR has come very far in very short time, but we have a lot more tools and technology today than we had 30 years ago. There’s been a little pessimism around the take-up of VR. It’s been 14 months since the Oculus Rift and HTC have been around. People expected 10-million headsets in use by now, and there’s only a million.”
But, said Azof, it’s coming. The fact that it was now in use in motoring, real estate and even hospitals was the signal: “If you’re not already working on how to apply these technologies into your businesses and into your lives, you’re already behind.”
He gave the example of real estate businesses that now show homes to prospective buyers in a much more immersive way than relying on pictures and descriptions.
“You don’t need to deploy a $2000 high-end rig. A $100 set of glasses can give you a pretty immersive experience. Small and large hospitals use it for patient education. We learn better through experience than through literature, so hospital discharge information is being put into an experience instead of the patient reading literature.”
Sweeney believes the reason it hasn’t taken off until now is that VR does not allow for the high tolerance that PC or mobile game players have for graphics that aren’t realistic.
“VR has to be realistic because it has to convince you that you’re immersed in the real world. Even for non photo-realistic animated experiences, your brain still has high expectations of how graphics appear around you, how lights reflect in eyes, and so on.”
The answer lies in photo-realistic computer graphics being rendered in real-time, meaning that the scene changes instantly and in a realistic way as one moves through it, with accurate simulations of how light interacts with objects in the real world.
“This requires an enormous amount of detail in an object, and it becomes impractical for artists to draw every object. Now artists can scan objects in the real world and use geometry and other techniques for rendering and accurately simulating the way cameras work in the real world.
“Outside the games industry, we are seeing a lot of non-fiction, non-game stuff, like architectural renderings in real time. Architects have high expectations of real-time rendering, accurate shading of wood, and the like.”
Sweeney believes automobile manufacturers will be early beneficiaries.
“Car makers like McLaren are using real-time rendering for pre production. In future, when car designers are designing cars, they will be constantly building it in VR and testing and retesting it before building the car itself. This means real-time has to be done very accurately.
“GM wants customers to walk into a dealership and configure a car and then watch themselves in their own car. And customers want to see themselves in the car they configured before they buy it.”
Not that gamers will be left behind.
“The next really interesting step is multi-player games. Doom was the first game that really defined multi-players, but they haven’t changed much in 20 years. All lo-fi and low bandwidth, you shooting and having simple dialogue; it’s not very interesting. We’re going to see more change in multiplayer gaming in the next two years than in the last 20 years.
“This is the most exciting time I’ve ever seen in the industry. These funny VR helmets you wear now are just the start of the revolution.”