Major Tech Advances in VR Add Credibility to Market Projections

Henrik Johansson, VP, products & marketing, Tobil

Henrik Johansson, VP, products & marketing, Tobil

Growing Public Exposure Readies Market for the Emergence of a Much Improved Experience

By Fred Dawson

March 3, 2017 – Anyone wondering whether to invest in virtual reality content or services might gain some clarity from recent technology advancements that suggest expectations for mass market adoption could be vindicated in fairly short order.

Innovations on display at this year’s CES extravaganza in Las Vegas make clear the bulky headsets, nausea-inducing effects, untenable bitrates and other issues dogging VR could disappear sooner than many observers anticipate. Meanwhile, ever more avenues for exposing consumers to VR through online, retail and amusement center outlets are delivering VR experiences that could accelerate development of a mass market once the VR experience becomes more user-friendly.

The early impact of that exposure can be seen in a comparison of results from surveys of U.S. consumers by IBB Consulting conducted last year in April and again at the outset of this year. Then the researchers found 12 percent of over 8,000 respondents expressed an interest in VR; the new survey, with 3,199 consumers responding, found the interest level has risen to 16 percent with close to 5 percent of respondents reporting they now own VR equipment.

Awareness-Accelerating Initiatives

While hardly a sign of serious groundswell, the figures show the advertising blitzes mounted by VR vendors over the past year combined with increasing first-hand exposure to the technology has had an impact. The exposure level is sure to increase this year, thanks in part to a bigger commitment immersive VR displays by retailers like Best Buy and Walmart.

Best Buy, which last year featured VR demos in only 48 stores, is now supporting displays with demos in about 500 stores and has VR products available in the “vast majority” of its stores, judging from plans first announced last year. In announcing the plans during a second quarter earnings call in August, Best Buy CEO Hubert Joy made clear the store’s growing commitment is a bet on the long-term, notwithstanding tepid market response in 2016.

“We believe virtual reality has the potential to contribute to our growth in the future,” Joy said. “But I am not expecting a material financial impact this year, given the timing of launches, inventory availability, and the fact that we are early in the cycle.”

This year VR gear owners will find they have access to a far greater volume of content with much better support for discovering the content than they’ve had before. A key facilitator in this regard is Littlstar, an online operation partially funded by a $33-million investment from Disney that provides a free app enabling consumers to view hundreds of VR titles in over 20 genre categories from Discovery, ABC, Showtime, Disney, National Geographic, PBS, Red Bull, Virgin and many other sources on all the major platforms, including Google Dreamland and Cardboard, Samsung Gear VR, Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and Sony PlayStation VR.

In a recent interview with tech podcaster Neil Hughes, Littlstar founder and CEO Tony Mugavero said the outlet will be introducing much more content this year, especially in conjunction with new partnerships tied to content initiatives by Google Daydream, Sony PSVR and game-developer Marvel. In the case of Daydream, the $79 VR HMD (head-mounted display) Google introduced last year as a step up to immersive experience from the low-cost Cardboard device, Littlstar will be displaying a rapidly expanding array of Daydream content options resulting from Google’s partnerships with Hulu, HBO, MLB, NBA, NFL and various game makers and its significant investments in original productions.

“There’s a massive opportunity for us there,” Mugavero told Hughes. “Google is making huge investments in AR (augmented reality) and VR.” As what some have called the “YouTube” of VR, Littlstar anticipates its success at evangelizing the market with free VR apps will pay off through opportunities to begin selling advertising and charge for premium content as the market base expands.

At year’s end the company took a big step in that direction with launch of Littlstar Japan, an initiative aligned with Sony Music Entertainment as its anchor partner and other partners in the offing. Mugavero said the company will be able to tailor its VR navigation strategy to tastes in the hot Asian market, where unexpected demand for the Sony PSVR after it rolled out in October led to long lines and a rushed effort by Sony to raise its manufacturing output.

VR is also starting to get significant exposure through installations at amusement parks and other locations, including New York City’s Times Square where The New York Times reported startup Void’s VR installation in the Madame Tussauds wax museum has drawn over 43,000 customers paying $20 each for a multi-room high-action Ghostbusters game experience since it launched in July. As The Times noted, Void is just one of several outfits pursuing business models built on paid admission to VR experiences in public places.

One of these, not mentioned by The Times, is three-year-old French startup Scale-1 Portal. The company is finding success with a low-cost variation on the concept, which, rather than offering a fully immersive VR experience, offers arcade vendors a $20,000 package consisting of projection equipment, action-tracking sensors, glasses and content that delivers an interactive 3-D experience with wall-projected exercise courses, games and other diversions. Visitors to the Scale-1 booth at CES witnessed staff leaping, weaving and running in place in front of an exercise routine dubbed “Future Runner,” which, when viewed without the glasses, looked like a 3-D movie in the raw.

The company, which is also engaged in custom design of products for business applications, was offering four content titles with the platform as of early January with the intention of producing one title per quarter in the future. “We add games to our installed units through the Internet, so it’s a simple process to keep sites updated with new content,” said Scale-1 president Emmanuel Icart. “We have units currently running in France as well as in Florida and Canada with more on the way.”

The New VR Experience

Expectations that all the activities driving increased public exposure to VR content will pay off for entities making big investments in equipment and content are looking ever more credible amid a wave of technology innovations that promise to significantly improve the VR experience compared to what’s delivered through today’s HMDs. That’s saying a lot, given the size and weight of HMDs, concern over nausea and eye strain, constraints imposed by cables and other issues.

One development that’s sure to impact the market is the emergence of head gear with a form factor closer to sunglasses than HMDs supporting performance matching the likes of the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive. The groundbreaking VR eyewear, on display at CES and slated for commercial release later this year, is the work of Chinese startup Dlodlo (pronounced “Dodo”) Technologies, which was handing out glasses for sampling by visitors to its booth.

Amazingly, the experience lived up to the claims made by DloDlo CEO Li Gang when the firm’s V1 glasses were announced last summer. “Dlodlo V1 is a breakthrough in Dlodlo’s VR equipment development, and is a landmark step in introducing VR equipment to the public,” Li said. “It’s smaller, smarter, better looking and offers a better experience than other VR products in the market. We’ve made progress in every part from optics and electronics to material and structure.”

With anticipated pricing in the $500-$600 range, the V1 has evolved quickly since its August debut in a short-lived fund raising effort anchored by Kickstarter. The V1 carbon-fiber glasses, 16 mm thick and weighing 88 grams, operate at a 90 Hz refresh rate with 3D displays fed through a “micro HDMI” input at 2400 x 1200 resolution, which translates to over 800 ppi (pixels per inch), nearly double the density levels of leading competitors’ HMDs.

The glasses can be connected to computers and game consoles or to the Dlodlo D1 controller, a pricey optional pocket-size high-density computing device that frees users to download and interact with VR content from Dlodlo’s growing store of games and other entertainment anywhere they find a Wi-Fi connection. In addition, Dlodlo has negotiated a tie-in with the high-end SteamVR controller platform, which entered the market last year as the supplier of motion-sensing technology and VR content for HTC’s Vive.

SteamVR, too, is a harbinger of improvements in VR experience that are destined to reach a larger audience over time. The platform utilizes saturation laser-beam coverage of a physical space to capture full-body motion signals at twitch-action gaming speeds anywhere the user moves in that space. The company has also partnered with LG in that vendor’s forthcoming second attempt at supplying the HMD market, and it’s now possible to run Rift HMDs on SteamVR. V1 users connected to SteamVR can participate in high-action games with full-body motion that matches the experience they can get with the Vive, according to some recent reviews.

Dlodlo faces a steep climb to market success, given the size of its competitors and their technological clout, especially with pricing that’s likely to be at the high end of the market. But, win or lose, the company has opened the window on a new VR HMD form factor that could well be duplicated by larger players before long.

Dlodlo has also found ways to address some of the visual issues that have continued to plague suppliers, notwithstanding recent increases in refresh rates and pixel densities. For example, the much higher pixel density reached by V1 mitigates the “screen-door” effect viewers experience when the close proximity of the displays to their eyes exposes black lines defining the contours of individual pixels.

Dlodlo has addressed another VR issue, dizziness, with a proprietary predictive algorithm that minimizes delays and distortions in the rendering process. And the company has shown it’s possible to support adjustments in display settings to help improve the experience for people with eyesight impairments.

The fact that such advances are destined to gain wider currency elsewhere is underscored by recent reports from academic researchers. For example, researchers at the University of Central Florida’s College of Optics and Photonics report they have overcome longstanding barriers to use of blue-phase LCD technology in a prototype application that raises pixel density to 1500 ppi. And researchers at Stanford University’s Computational Imaging Lab say they are developing HMDs that can adjust renderings for aging-related and other types of eyesight deficiencies.

Another area of advancement with major implications for VR involves the use of eye-tracking technology. The precision and speed of this technology was apparent in a demonstration at CES conducted by Henrik Johansson, vice president of products and marketing at Stockholm-based Tobil, a 16-year-old innovator in eye tracking technology.

In the demo, a viewer whose eye movements were tracked by infrared sensors at the base of a PC display saw little graphic images arrayed in rows across the screen light up instantaneously as his gaze shifted from one to the next without any head movement. Johansson said Tobil’s technology also supports what is known as foveated rendering by utilizing the firm’s EyeChip microprocessor-powered IS4 eye tracking platform to dynamically display content in gradations of resolution that realistically replicate what the eyes absorb across the field of vision in everyday experience.

Tobil’s technology, which previously gained traction in video gaming, marketing research and other fields, has now entered the VR space in conjunction with the recent introduction of the StarVR HMD, the product of a joint venture between PC maker Acer and VR content supplier Starbreeze. So far, the HMD is being used exclusively by IMAX in newly launched VR arcade centers in New York, London and Shanghai.

As explained by Johansson, the VR application, along with tracking the viewer’s gaze, divides the StarVR’s 205-degree field of vision into three zones of resolution with decreasing detail from the core circle of focus to the outer circle of perception. By eliminating unnecessary information within the field of vision as the viewer’s focus shifts in real time, “we reduce the overall bitrate by anywhere from 40 to 70 percent, depending on the degrees of resolution chosen for a particular application,” Johansson said.

Along with reducing the load on GPU processing power and cutting the transmission bandwidth required for streaming live sports and other real-time VR content, the technology introduces new level of personalized experience to VR applications, Johansson noted. For example, it’s now possible to support more natural personal interactions based on eye contact between users’ avatars in the virtual world or to peg sounds and the appearance of characters in a gaming sequence to the user’s gaze without reliance on head movements.

Acer and Starbreeze have made know their intentions to make the StarVR HMD available to the general public later this year. “While we have not yet started shipping larger volumes of StarVR, the current interest from multiple markets and from prominent brands and business sets us up well for the mass production phase beginning later in 2017,” Starbreeze said in a quarterly financial statement.

With the eye-tracking capabilities and support for 5K (5120 x1440) resolution, which raises pixel density to over 1,200 ppi, the HMD could significantly impact consumer expectations for VR. Starbreeze, which did not set a consumer price for StarVR, said it may farther refine the HMD, which in its IMAX implementation is as bulky or more so than the Rift and Vive. “Durability, field of view, hygiene, resolution, refresh rates and weight are all key aspects that we improve constantly and according to plan,” the statement said.

In a recent court appearance defending Facebook-owned Oculus in a copyright infringement case, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg offered the prevailing view on the development trend line for VR. Noting his company will be investing some $3 billion to improve the VR experience in the years ahead, Zuckerberg said, “It’s going to take five or ten years of development before we get where we all want to go.”

Judging by the latest advances in VR technology, that timeline could turn out to be much shorter.