Virtual reality, or VR, has been stealing the show at the Mobile World Congress (MWC) which used to be dominated by smartphones. Even though VR is now used mostly for entertainment purposes such as games and films, it is expected to expand into wider areas such as the medical, construction and tourism sectors.
Samsung Electronics and LG Electronics unwrapped their newest flagship smartphones at MWC in Spain on Feb. 21, local time, along with VR headsets and VR cameras. The VR headsets are compatible with smartphones and VR cameras can shoot 360-degree video. SK Telecom and KT showcased next-generation 5G technologies that smoothly show high-quality VR video. It is said that this year will be the first year of VR with floods of various headsets and content. The information and communication technology (ICT) industry is paying a lot of attention to whether VR will remain a pet product for early adopters or will replace smartphones as popular IT item.
This year, the VR market will see a rush of new headsets. Oculus will launch Oculus Lift that targets gamers such as Xbox users next month. Oculus is a start-up that Facebook took over for US$2 billion in March 2014. The company developed the Gear VR by teaming up with Samsung Electronics. Oculus not only produces terminals but runs content distribution platforms such as Oculus Share, Cinema and 360.
Sony is planning to announce a VR headset for its game console PlayStation 4 in the first half of this year. Taiwan’s HTC will unveil the VR headset Vibe in partnership with Valve which runs Steam, the largest PC game platform in the world. At the MWC 2016, HTC announced that it will pre-sell the Vibe for US$799 beginning on February 29.
Oculus, Sony and HTC are eyeing the game market where VR is catching on. They are pricey, ranging from 300,000 to 900,000 won. On the other hand, Google and Samsung Electronics have been zooming in on lower priced VR devices. “Cardboard” unveiled in July 2014 is an assembly type VR device made of cardboard, a lens and a rubber band. Google is bent on preoccupying a VR content ecosystem of videos and games. It is said that Google is developing a standalone VR device and operation system that do not require smartphones.
On top of that, the search giant will unwrap a mobile VR device, an upgrade of the current Cardboard in a Google developers’ congress to be held this May. It is expected that Google will announce a product that can match the Samsung Gear VR by replacing cardboard with plastics and putting a computer chip and sensor into it.
Apple is paying attention to VR as one of their future growth engines, too. Allegedly Apple has been running a secret research team assembled with hundreds of engineers who boned up on VR and augmented reality for a long time. Recently, the tech giant brought in Doug Bowman, the best VR specialist, from Virginia Tech. The company is putting its utmost efforts into VR technology development by acquiring VR- and AR-related start-ups such as Metaio, Flyby Media and Emotient.
The VR market will grow more rapidly beginning this year. According to Gartner, a business research and consulting firm, VR hardware sales will rose to 1.4 million units this year and to 6.3 million units in 2017 from 140,000 units in 2015. The VR market has a rosy future. PiperJaffray, an IT investment consulting company, forecast that VR headsets will sell 500 million units a year in 2025. Digi-Capital analyzed that the VR market will grow to US$30 billion in 2020.
VR devices need to improve themselves such as lighter models and getting rid of dizziness. “VR headsets are so heavy that gamers feel uncomfortable after wearing them for only 20 to 30 minutes,” said Bang Jun-hyuk, chairman of Netmarble in a meeting with reporters. “They should be as light as sunglasses or goggles that people can wear for over an hour.”
Samsung’s Gear VR and Oculus Lift weigh 318g and 380g, respectively. But LG’s 360 VR tip the scale at 118g. The LG device is expected to fuel competition to make VR headsets lighter. Some experts have a prudent view about the future or the VR market. They say that it will be difficult for the VR market to grow as fast as the smartphone market.
Some even worry that Korea may be sandwiched between developed countries and China. This is because only advanced countries such as the U.S. have fundamental VR technologies and China is chasing after Korea with cheaper hardware devices.
Experts say that the popularization of VR is contingent upon an ecosystem that covers production and distribution of VR contents. As shown in the smartphone industry, Samsung, Facebook, Google and Apple all know the meanings of contents and platforms in the device market,” said Hong Won-kyun, a researcher at the KT Economic and Management Research Institute. “VR is now growing with VR devices as the center now. But going forward, VR companies will wage a fiercer battle for better platforms to draw consumers.”