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VR Virtual Reality: Virtually Ready for Pro AV

Like a video game, virtual reality (VR) technology allows participants to experience the world in simulated environments. But it may also change the game for the AV businesses. In the span of a couple years, the industry has seen tangential technologies, such as drones and the Internet of Things, become viable solutions in an integrator’s toolbox — far more quickly, for instance, than the shift from tape-based to random-access video sources, or even from analog to digital. Now, it seems, VR and its closely related sibling, augmented reality (AR), may be on the cusp of breaking out — and the gears are starting to turn.

We believe that virtual reality is going to have a profound impact on the pro AV industry. In education, companies such as TechCrunch report on the surge in companies developing VR and AR platforms. In medicine and healthcare, VR has been finding applications in everything from pain management to socialization for the medically isolated. In retail, companies have been rolling out VR solutions that place customers into virtual environments, such as a renovated bathroom in their own home or the Sahara Desert.

With both consumer and the commercial markets for VR proceeding at a fast clip, it’s not surprising that annual revenue is forecast to grow from less than €1 billion today to €25 billion by 2020, according to advisory firm Digi-Capital.

Deep Roots

Virtual reality is an extension of the trend toward immersive experiences that’s been developing in professional AV for the past several years. But instead of enveloping a group of people in, say, a video teleconference, it immerses them instead on an individual basis, pulling as many together as choose to plug into whatever virtual environment the software has cobbled together for them. Where it goes well beyond even immersive teleconferencing is that it also incorporates a user’s physical senses as part of virtual interaction. Virtual realities artificially create a sensory experience, which can include sight, touch, hearing, and smell.

VR began getting real traction in this century as more gaming systems added 3D and haptic feedback capability, and 360-degree viewing became more common through platforms such as Google Earth. The proliferation of consumer VR headsets stimulated the Moore’s Law effect, taking VR out of the expensive realm of applications like military flight simulators and high-end amusement park rides and into a commodity environment.

Augmented reality, on the other hand, describes a live-direct or indirect view of a physical, real-world environment whose elements are supplemented by computer-generated sensory input, such as sound, video, graphics or GPS data. It essentially annotates reality, adding commentary or additional information, enhancing one’s current perception of reality rather than replacing the real world with a simulated one.

Less immersive and more supportive, AR hardware can be less imposing than the bulky headpieces of VR. They’re typified by Google’s Glass product, released widely in 2013, which essentially integrated a smartphone’s worth of processing, including a camera and a heads-up display, into a pair of eyeglass frames. (Google Glass received mixed reviews on its release, generating concerns about privacy and safety. The most recent AR star, the Pokémon Go video game released earlier this year, has revived some of those concerns.)

But despite some mixed press, AR shows considerable potential for business applications. A Gartner analysis suggests that as location services and image-recognition capabilities improve, businesses can use AR for tasks such as vehicle, campus and in-building navigation and identification, and personnel and object-recognition in security and decision-making applications.

 

The Future

Broadcast and live events are becoming fertile fields for VR and AR technology. This year, VR companies are set to produce live and video-on-demand VR content around sports broadcasts with Live Nation, the world’s largest concert promoter, to manage VR for dozens of concerts annually. The company has assembled three mobile VR units that can be dispatched to live-event sites: a truck-based mobile unit that can field up to 10 VR camera rigs that will primarily work events in North America and two fly pack units that will have the capability of supporting VR events globally.

Interest on the academic side is also increasing. The 2016 AES Convention, the annual conclave that takes place is the largest of the organization’s conventions globally, is putting VR and AR high on its agenda for the first time. It will include a manufacturer’s expo, essentially creating a mini trade show for the burgeoning sector.

Virtual and augmented reality are now in many AV integrators’ toolboxes. They’ll be in many more in short order. So let the “games” begin.

 

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