The Mobile World Congress, the largest annual trade show in the telecommunications industry, is back for 2015, with a slew of big product announcements from some of the biggest names in tech.
In case you missed it, earlier this week SmartCompany ran through some of the biggest smartphone announcements, including the Samsung Galaxy S6 and S6 edge, HTC One M9 and Microsoft’s business-targeted 640 and 640 XL phablets. We also took a look at the impact some of those trends, including the rollout of 5G networks, are likely to have on your business.
Amongst the announcements, two really stood out, however. The first was that, as happened with the Samsung Note Edge late last year, there is going to be a virtual reality headset that goes along with the Galaxy S6 and S6 edge. Meanwhile, HTC announced a major partnership with games giant Valve on a new virtual reality headset of its own, called the HTC Vive.
It comes after Microsoft announced in January that it is releasing a new hologram headset called the HoloLens alongside Windows 10, while Google is putting the head of its Nest Internet of Things division in charge of the next version of Google Glass. And that’s without mentioning Facebook’s $US2.2 billion ($A2.8 billion) purchase of Oculus in March last year.
Given all these developments, it’s worth taking a step back and looking at how these technologies are likely to impact your business.
The basics: What’s the difference between augmented reality and virtual reality?
The first thing to be aware of is that these headsets generally fit into two broad categories: virtual reality and augmented reality.
When you put on a virtual reality headset, you’re effectively putting a computer screen in front of each of your eyes so all you can see is the virtual world – a bit like The Matrix. This can come in the form of a smartphone you slide into the headset (Samsung’s devices), or it can be integrated into the headset (something like Oculus Rift).
Augmented reality or ‘hologram’ devices, such as HoloLens or Google Glass, are different. With these, you’re wearing a pair of glasses through which you can see the real world. However, onto this view of the real world seen through the glasses, the device projects 3D ‘hologram’ images of virtual objects. In other words, more like Minority Report.
So, for example, if you’re running an app that gives you map directions, the glasses might project arrows to show you where to go.
Is virtual reality really new?
Back in the early ‘90s, a number of companies were working on virtual reality headsets, with a few (such as the Virtual Boy by Japanese games giant Nintendo) released into selected markets.
The problem with these early devices was that the processors were too slow to pick up head movements in real time, while the resolution was so low and blocky that most people could make out scan lines on the screens. This led to most people reporting they felt dizzy or nauseous after just a few minutes of use.
The good news is the advent of smartphones, along with their high resolution screens, combined with about 20 years of research, has done away with these issues.
As for augmented reality, there are some mobile apps (such as the Word Lens in Google Translate) that overlay virtual images over real-world objects from the camera. In this case, a pair of glasses is far more convenient than pulling your smartphone out.
Is virtual reality and augmented reality just a toy?
Obviously, one of the first applications for both of these technologies will be in games and advertisements. But that’s just the start of the potential.
The real killer app for holograms is in navigation. Instead of constantly looking down at your phone, your headset can display a series of arrows to where you need to go. The same could be said for instructional videos.
Then there’s a host of potential in terms of teleconferencing. For example, you could have a ‘hologram’ of a co-worker in another city able to sit in on a business meeting. Or you could virtually attend a conference overseas just by putting on a VR headset.
In the news media, having a virtual reality news app that allows you a 360-degree of a particular location – for example, a warzone in Eastern Ukraine or Iraq – might convey the horror of the scene far more powerfully than a TV news bulletin or article.
And then there’s the potential to look at a lifestyle virtual depiction of an object before you buy it. For example, imagine an app that allows your customers to ‘try on’ the clothes or shoes from your online store before they buy. Alternatively, for anyone looking at prototyping a product, VR or holograms are likely to be a small miracle. Why spend a fortune on 3D-printed models when you can see the same thing as a hologram?
How far away is the impact?
As with any disruptive technology, from the telephone to the car to the television to the computer to the smartphone, these technologies have the potential to reshape whole industries.
However, it will most likely take a few years of refinement before a lot of that potential has been unlocked. At this stage, these devices are primarily intended for early adopters and developers.
With that being said, as happened with the world wide web and smartphone apps, there are often large first-mover advantages for companies that are quick to adopt new technologies first.
And given the potential size of the virtual opportunities, if you want to be a first mover, now is the time to take a serious look at these new technologies and what they have to offer.