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Can VR become billion-user platform?

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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.

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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.

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“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.

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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.”

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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.”

Mercedes-Benz S 500 4MATIC Coupé Edition 1 (C 217) 2013

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.

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“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.”

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Tech promotes connections across groups in emerging markets

Digital technology users say they more regularly interact with people from diverse backgrounds

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Smartphone users – especially those who use social media – say they are more regularly exposed to people who have different backgrounds. They are also more connected with friends they don’t see in person, a Pew Research Center survey of adults in 11 emerging economies finds.

South Africa, included in the study, has among the most consistent levels of connection across age groups and education levels and in terms of cross-cultural connections. This suggests both that smartphones have had a greater democratisation impact in South Africa, but also that the country is more geared to diversity than most others. Of 11 countries surveyed, it has the second-lowest spread between those using smartphones and those not using them in terms of exposure to other religious groups.

Across every country surveyed, those who use smartphones are more likely than those who use less sophisticated phones or no phones at all to regularly interact with people from different religious groups. In most countries, people with smartphones also tend to be more likely to interact regularly with people from different political parties, income levels and racial or ethnic backgrounds. 

The Center’s new report is the third in a series exploring digital connectivity among populations in emerging economies based on nationally representative surveys of adults in Colombia, India, Jordan, Kenya, Lebanon, Mexico, the Philippines, Tunisia, South Africa, Venezuela and Vietnam. Earlier reports examined attitudes toward misinformation and mobile technology’s social impact

The survey finds that smartphone and social media use are intertwined: A median of 91% of smartphone users in these countries also use social media or messaging apps, while a median of 81% of social media users say they own or share a smartphone. And, as with smartphone users, social media and messaging app users stand apart from non-users in how often they interact with people who are different from them. For example, 52% of Mexican social media users say they regularly interact with people of a different income level, compared with 28% of non-users. 

These results do not show with certainty that smartphones or social media are the cause of people feeling like they have more diverse networks. For example, those who have resources to buy and maintain a smartphone are likely to differ in many key ways from those who don’t, and it could be that some combination of those differences drives this phenomenon. Still, statistical modelling indicates that smartphone and social media use are independent predictors of greater social network diversity when other factors such as age, education and sex are held constant. 

Other key findings in the report include: 

  • Mobile phones and social media are broadening people’s social networks. More than half in most countries say they see in person only about half or fewer of the people they call or text. Mobile phones are also allowing many to stay in touch with people who live far away: A median of 93% of mobile phone users across the 11 countries surveyed say their phones have mostly helped them keep in touch with those who are far-flung. When it comes to social media, large shares report relationships with “friends” online who are distinct from those they see in person. A median of 46% of Facebook users across the 11 countries report seeing few or none of their Facebook friends in person regularly, compared with a median of 31% of Facebook users who often see most or all of their Facebook friends in person. 
  • Social activities and information seeking on subjects like health and education top the list of mobile activities. The survey asked mobile phone users about 10 different activities they might do on their mobile phones – activities that are social, information-seeking or commercial in nature. Among the most commonly reported activities are casual, social activities. For example, a median of 82% of mobile phone users in the 11 countries surveyed say they used their phone over the past year to send text messages and a median of 69% of users say they took pictures or videos. Many mobile phone users are also using their phones to find new information. For example, a median of 61% of mobile phone users say they used their phones over the past year to look up information about health and medicine for themselves or their families. This is more than the proportion that reports using their phones to get news and information about politics (median of 47%) or to look up information about government services (37%). Additionally, around half or more of mobile phone users in nearly all countries report having used their phones over the past 12 months to learn something important for work or school. 
  • Digital divides emerge in the new mobile-social environment. People with smartphones and social media – as well as younger people, those with higher levels of education, and men – are in some ways reaping more benefits than others, potentially contributing to digital divides. 
    • People with smartphones are much more likely to engage in activities on their phones than people with less sophisticated devices – even if the activity itself is quite simple. For example, people with smartphones are more likely than those with feature or basic phones to send text messages in each of the 11 countries surveyed, even though the activity is technically feasible from all mobile phones. Those who have smartphones are also much more likely to look up information for their households, including about health and government services. 
    •  There are also major differences in mobile usage by age and education level in how their devices are – or are not – broadening their horizons. Younger people are more likely to use their phones for nearly all activities asked about, whether those activities are social, information-seeking or commercial. Phone users with higher levels of education are also more likely to do most activities on their phones and to interact with those who are different from them regularly than those with lower levels of education. 
    •  Gender, too, plays a role in what people do with their devices and how they are exposed to different people and information. Men are more likely than women to say they encounter people who are different from them, whether in terms of race, politics, religion or income. And men tend to be more likely to look up information about government services and to obtain political news and information. 

These findings are drawn from a Pew Research Center survey conducted among 28,122 adults in 11 countries from Sept. 7 to Dec. 7, 2018. In addition to the survey, the Center conducted focus groups with participants in Kenya, Mexico, the Philippines and Tunisia in March 2018, and their comments are included throughout the report. 

Read the full report at https://www.pewinternet.org/2019/08/22/in-emerging-economies-smartphone-and-social-media-users-have-broader-social-networks.

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Nokia to be first with Android 10

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Nokia is likely to be the first smartphone brand to roll out Android 10, after its manufacturer, HMD Global, announced that the Android 10 software upgrade would start in the fourth quarter of 2019.

Previously named Android Q, it was given the number after Google announced it was ditching sweet and dessert names due to confusion in different languages. Android 10 is due for release at the end of the year.

Juho Sarvikas, chief product officer of HMD Global said: “With a proven track record in delivering software updates fast, Nokia smartphones were the first whole portfolio to benefit from a 2-letter upgrade from Android Nougat to Android Oreo and then Android Pie. We were the fastest manufacturer to upgrade from Android Oreo to Android Pie across the range. 

“With today’s roll out plan we look set to do it even faster for Android Pie to Android 10 upgrades. We are the only manufacturer 100% committed to having the latest Android across the entire portfolio.”

HMD Global has given a guarantee that Nokia smartphone owners benefit from two years of OS upgrades and 3 years of security updates.

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