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Immersive technology breakthrough at CES in Las Vegas allows masses “to experience the impossible”

Sales of virtual reality headsets are set to hit 1.2 million units and US$540 million in 2016

PUBLISHED : Monday, 07 March, 2016, 9:33am
UPDATED : Friday, 18 March, 2016, 5:34pm

You can scuba dive on a shipwreck without getting wet – sea sickness included - or soar as a superhero flying over New York. You can breakfast at Tiffany’s, lunch in Paris, and be at home for dinner. Or share real-time experiences with friends anywhere in the world, without leaving your living room.

Computer-generated immersive technology – known as virtual reality (VR), the forerunner, and augmented reality (AR) in the next generation - might still be in its infancy, but the fact that the world’s largest consumer electronics show – CES in Las Vegas, US – dedicated an entire marketplace to it at its 2016 edition in January had many saying that this would be the year that immersive technology hits the mainstream. Sales of virtual reality headsets are projected to reach 1.2 million units this year – a 500 per cent increase over 2015 – with total revenue tipped to reach US$540 million.

The notion of a three-dimensional, computer generated environment, which can be explored and interacted with by a human, has been kicked around in the tech community for decades.  The launch of the internet in 1993 was a game-changer, giving virtual reality visionaries the means to implement their ideas. History will record 2016 as the year that major companies including Sony, Oculus and HTC, first sold VR/AR headsets for use in the home.

The technology unveiled at CES in January had reporters’ heads spinning. One game on the Oculus Rift brought a Times journalist to tears, such was the power of Toy Box to return him to his youth. The BBC journalist who climbed Mount Everest – courtesy of the HTC Vive – was overcome with emotion when she reached the summit. And rendered nauseous on a scarily disorientating trip to outer space.

Apparently, motion sickness can be a problem for many users, such is the realism of the VR experience. Another reporter, spaced out by the Oculus Rift game Adrift, views sickness as “the price of feeling like you're there”. Developers say this can be alleviated by pairing the headset with the right devices. 

On top of purchasing the VR hardware itself, you also need a powerful PC, with high-end graphics cards, to run it. Though that is changing, too, thanks to Gear VR from Samsung (powered by Oculus), which can run on a compatible smartphone.

Developers also demonstrated the usefulness of these emerging technologies. Carmaker Hyundai unveiled its augmented reality app called the Virtual Guide, which reportedly “helps idiot-proof car maintenance”. It allows owners to use their phones to get more familiar with their cars, and learn how to perform basic maintenance. AR also has untapped potential in health care, and is set to radically change commerce as we know it. That’s only the beginning.

Sony’s highly-anticipated PlayStation VR was a notable omission from CES 2016, but company chief executive Kazuo Hirai told the BBC that 200-plus VR developers were working on 100 or more titles, and a 2016 launch was still on the cards. With close to 36 million PlayStation units already sold, Hirai said he believes there is already a “huge market” for the next generation immersive game play experience, and that he expects the product will extend beyond gaming to a wider audience.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is also a believer. “One day, we believe this kind of immersive, augmented reality will become a part of daily life for billions of people”, Zuckerberg said in March 2014 when he announced the company’s US$2 billion buyout of Oculus VR.
Its mission, he said, was to enable the masses “to experience the impossible”. And if that still sounds like the stuff of science fiction, even in 2016, Zuckerberg reminds that the internet was also once a dream, “and so were computers and smartphones”.