From Nintendo’s Virtual Boy in the distant past to the Oculus Rift now, VR has been sputtering into our future. This year however, is truly the year for VR (if there ever was one) with even more companies getting in on the advancements being made in replacing or augmenting our reality.
Leading the way is Facebook, Microsoft, Google and Apple. Facebook was first to commit big money to VR, acquiring Oculus in July 2014 for $2 Billion. Google unveiled Cardboard a month earlier at Google I/O, but it wouldn’t be until later that year that people would realize the possibilities with a build-it-yourself headset. Immediately following in January of 2015, Microsoft introduced HoloLens that takes a more augmented approach to enhancing your reality. And then there’s Apple, leading the innovation by following the lead of others, stoking rumors of their own VR device with research, VR teams and acquisitions over the past year. Needless to say, all of these companies are interested in VR and investing heavily into the technology.
Perhaps the most prophetic photo of VR’s potential is seen this week at the Mobile World Congress (MWC), where Facebook boss man, Mark Zuckerberg, strolls confidently past an oblivious crowd of VR-wearing flesh bags.
That’s a comforting image, isn’t it?
All of these companies are expanding their VR endeavors. Facebook and Microsoft are seemingly ahead with their own consumer VR device. So where do the others stand and how might this affect us as engineers and designers who use 3D software on a 2D screen all day?
Google now officially has a virtually reality division. The team isn’t very big with only ten members, but they want to keep it growing by shuffling current employees into the new department. One of the new VR members is Joshua To, a design lead for the apps unit. He and other designers will work under Clay Bavor, product manager and new vice president for Google’s VR department. The company also hired a content VR lead for Youtube.
Google already made headlines concerning VR a few years ago with the introduction of Cardboard. It proved to be a success, and Mr. Bavor reports that Google has offloaded over five million of the VR viewers, despite sucking for the most part. However, they’re looking to expand beyond the ‘board with VR specialists working with them in other divisions like Youtube and Google’s “We like epic shit” Advanced Technology and Projects group.
Apple has also formed their own team dedicated to working on VR and augmented reality. Rather than turning to the inward absorption of employees, the company has recruited VR experts from competitors like Microsoft and Lytro. Along with this, Apple recently acquired the augmented reality startup Flyby Media, which previously worked with Google to develop the 3D positioning tech for Project Tango. Coincidence? Probably not.
Apple also hired Doug Bowman, who is one of the world’s leading researchers in VR tech. And apparently, Apple has been building prototype headsets for a few months, keeping tight-lipped until the carefully planned leak. This isn’t the first time Apple has tried to get into the VR game though. The FT reports that Apple tried in the mid-2000s under Steve Jobs, but scrapped the project since the technology wasn’t advanced enough at the time. Likely those notes are being combed over again.
Where does this put those of us who have worked behind a screen for the last few decades? As evidence in a video highlight by Microsoft and partner Autodesk, 3D could move off that flat screen very soon. AR lenses, such as HoloLens, that augment and enhance what we’re able to do with 3D software and 3D geometry would be a natural extension to the software we’re using today, with a transition to when, “it’s just easier to do it in VR,” and we suddenly see the flat panel monitor market tank.
Job requirement: 15,000 hours VR integration.
While being completely closed off from our surrounding by a VR headset sounds enticing (it doesn’t), it’s AR that makes the transition for us. This applies whether you’re in the office, in the field or at home. In many cases, it makes the argument for augmented more convincing–view the manufacturing facility within your cubicle, visit your home within the field, visit the office within the doctor’s waiting room. But then a full VR set, well, would we even need to go anywhere? No one wears their phone all day, right? Why would you think they’d wear a VR headset all day? Wait… Why would they need to take it off? Oh, there’s real reality. Don’t worry, once the VR excitement has settled down, they’ll have all the real reality you can handle boxed up in a nice package to purchase.
Above the sarcasm, there’s certainly some interesting potential with how were able to interact with a view 3D geometry. It’s sad that it’s purely focused around consumption of content–Facebook also unveiled Gear VR this week, with the potential “dynamic streaming” of 6K 360 degree video in 3D virtual environment. At the rate VR development is taking place, applications for 3D CAD software and product development are immense. For those of us already familiar with working in 3D environments, there could very easily more context and methods for designing in greater detail. Workspaces unconstrained by two dimensions. I’ve never been a fan of keeping 3D within a screen. The sooner we can bring it out into our environment, to provide context of design and functionality to generations who haven’t had that, we’ll see people developing ideas in ways that haven’t been possible.
Images: Autodesk Fusion 360