GfK’s Tech Trends 2016 explores the latest advances in technology and examines their implications for consumer needs and behaviour. This week, we are publishing the report's findings on virtual reality, a technology for which mass-adoption may be just around the corner.
Could 2016 be the year that virtual reality (VR) comes into its own? Estimates suggest a US$2.8 billion global VR hardware market by 2020, with head-mounted displays (HMDs) for gamers leading the charge. We believe the trialing of VR in gaming will generate more awareness of it and could drive appetite for its application beyond entertainment. This could result in VR penetrating other industries such as travel, retail, business and education. With Facebook saying it wants to “build a device that allows you to be anywhere you want, with anyone, regardless of geographic boundaries”, is it finally time to get real about VR?
Sony, Valve, HTC and Facebook are among those leading the way in creating VR content for gaming platforms. The current focus is very much on the HMDs that provide a fully immersive, individual experience. Gamers can be interacting with players anywhere in the world, while being practically isolated from the people sitting next to them on the sofa.
Much rests on how well these first HMDs and accessories perform. So what’s going to be on offer for gamers? Sony has PlayStation VR, Facebook acquired Oculus Rift in 2014 and Valve has Steam VR (a headset produced by HTC). Microsoft has yet to announce a full VR product for Xbox. Its HoloLens currently provides a different spin on an HMD, offering augmented reality rather than a full virtual environment.
The gaming market won’t be limited to first-party HMD manufacturers; third parties are already working on accessories that increase the perception of immersion via haptic feedback (i.e. the sense of touch in a user interface). Gloves are one of the first products on offer to gamers, and we expect other accessories and peripherals to follow. Numerous companies are offering them, including Gloveone, Control VR and Manus Machina.
Teslasuit has a more ambitious approach: a full-body haptic feedback suit.
The gaming market caters to the tech-savvy, early adopter market that anticipates the arrival of technology such as VR headsets and accessories, and they are ready to part with US$350 or more to experience it. But how might VR develop beyond gaming? Marriott, Thomas Cook and Qantas Airways have already created promotional experiences using VR. The technology gives would-be travellers a taste of their possible destinations, as well as hotel facilities and rooms.
Shopping could become one of VR’s top applications, allowing connected consumers to experience a full retail environment from their own home. British online fashion retailer ASOS is currently partnering with 3D and VR retail specialist Trillenium to bring its products to HMD headsets. Benefits for retailers include an improved retail design and shelf optimization, and reduced item returns. The latter is a massive challenge and cost for fashion retailers in particular, so they are keen to embrace any technology that could help to address this.
Applications in business include architectural design, home and office space planning, and rapid prototyping in product development and engineering. VR can also be used in healthcare to support training and remote robot-assisted surgery, allowing operations to be conducted from distant locations. The educational possibilities are vast too. It’s easy to imagine a classroom full of schoolchildren experiencing ancient Rome via VR headsets.
Our analyst, Jack Millership, says:
“The potential applications of virtual reality are endless and exciting. But, with this technology in its early stages focused on gamers, it’s still unclear if awareness and familiarity will be enough to drive appetite among mainstream connected consumers. We know that Microsoft’s Xbox 360 migrated from the gaming category to the home entertainment space, and the companies investing in VR will be hoping for history to repeat itself. Brands need to monitor the success of HMD headsets in 2016 and beyond, and be poised to respond if the consumer reaction is positive.”
Read the full report here.
 Business Insider UK, April 2015, The Virtual Reality Report.