It's time for immersive tech

With the Covid-19 pandemic forcing people to move online for events and meetings, virtual reality and augmented reality may finally achieve mainstream status

Video-conferencing tool Zoom is undoubtedly the breakout app of the coronavirus pandemic, which has curtailed travel and face-to-face meetings.

But some tech firms are already looking beyond video conferencing. Their solution for the socially distant world? Collaboration tools that use virtual reality (AR) and augmented reality (AR).

Both technologies saw a surge in interest during the pandemic, especially for virtual collaboration and gaming, analysts say.

"Confined to their homes, people had more time to use or invest in VR headsets," says Mr George Jijiashvili, a senior analyst at market research firm Omdia.

The launch of the high-profile VR game Half-Life: Alyx in March has been a shot in the arm for VR gaming, says Mr Yexi Liao, an analyst at market research firm IDC. He estimates the game has sold almost a million copies since its launch, making it the fastest-selling VR game to date.

He is also seeing more attention being paid towards remote education and training, which suits AR and VR.

Echoing this, Mr Rajesh Chakravarthy, academic director at home-grown game design school Mages Institute of Excellence, says: "Long-term social distancing measures could scale up AR and VR adoption and use, ranging from training to gaming to business."

The increased interest in the technology as a result of the pandemic will lead to "real innovation over the coming months", he says.

VR creates a virtual environment using headsets that block out a user's surroundings, while AR superimposes digital content over the real world, like the virtual creatures in the Pokemon Go mobile game.

They are also referred to as immersive technology, with a projected market value of US$209.2 billion (S$291 billion) by 2022, according to the Infocomm Media Development Authority.

Two technology firms, in particular, are the standard bearers of this VR and AR boom in virtual collaboration.​

  • Apps to try

    Raring to explore the new possibilities enabled by augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR)?

    Consider trying AR first, as it requires only a compatible Android smartphone (most models from the past two to three years should work fine) or an Apple smartphone (with an A9 chip or newer).
     

    A simple but fun AR app to try is Just A Line (free for Android and iOS). Draw on your smartphone screen to create an AR layer over the physical world before capturing the result as a video.

    Pair your phone with a friend's phone to collaborate and draw in a shared space.

    Because it can superimpose virtual 3D objects over the real world, AR is used by furniture retailers Ikea and Castlery to give customers a glimpse of how a piece of furniture will appear in their homes. Try Ikea Place (free for Android and iOS) and Castlery (free for iOS).
     

    Museums, too, have been experimenting with AR to enhance their exhibits. BBC's Civilisations AR app (free for Android and iOS) lets you explore more than 30 historic artefacts, including an Egyptian mummy and iconic sculptures from museums in Britain.

    Given the ongoing pandemic, it may be easier and safer to take virtual tours or explore AR objects through your smartphone. The Google Expeditions app (free for Android and iOS) comes with more than 100 AR expeditions and more than 900 VR tours. Teachers can also create their own immersive tours or guide their students on a virtual expedition.

    Game to invest in a VR headset? If you already have a PlayStation 4 console, it makes sense to get the PlayStation VR ($449), which has a library of more than 100 titles. Start with games such as Astro Bot Rescue Mission ($27.90), a cute and fun platformer, and rhythm game Beat Saber ($44.20).

    While PC users get to choose from a variety of VR headsets at a range of prices from the likes of HTC, Oculus and Valve, many of these headsets are unavailable here or out of stock.

    But if you manage to get your hands on a headset and have a capable computer, the must-have games include VR shooter Half-Life: Alyx ($36.75) and physics-based action game Boneworks ($20.80).

    For non-gamers, Google Earth VR (free) lets you zoom across the world in a heartbeat, while you can paint in 3D using the controller in Tilt Brush ($20).

    Vincent Chang

American start-up Spatial says the usage of its holographic collaboration platform, which uses AR and VR to mimic a real-world meeting, has gone up by 1,000 per cent since it was made free in May.

The start-up, which touts early customers such as toymaker Mattel and BNP Paribas bank, raised an additional US$14 million in funding in January to bring its total to US$22 million.

Dubbed Zoom on steroids by some pundits, the platform creates a 3D avatar for each user from a selfie photo. Each avatar can interact with other avatars and virtual objects in a shared virtual workspace.

Users don VR headsets, which block out the real world, during meetings. Spatial also works with Web browsers on computers and mobile devices, though the experience will be less immersive.

Last month, Taiwanese firm HTC announced several VR applications, dubbed Vive XR Suite. It is a cloud-based subscription service with VR-powered tools for remote collaboration, large-scale online conferences and virtual exhibitions. It works with computers and mobile devices, though a VR headset is recommended.

The service is expected to launch in China in the third quarter of the year before expanding to other countries later in the year.

LOCAL FIRMS WADE INTO THE FRAY

Several local immersive tech firms have also waded into the VR and AR fray to tap the new opportunities arising from the pandemic.

Software developer SFX Corporation last year envisioned a virtual collaboration system, dubbed VCS, that lets users in an organisation interact remotely using VR and AR.

However, prompted by the pandemic, the company has expanded its idea to a cloud-based system that would work across various organisations.

Chief executive officer Ng Teow Khoon says: "We have been seeing a strong growth in interest in VR and AR for the past two months and we believe VCS can be a potential new source of revenue."

A beta version of VCS will be released to select clients next month.

Mr Ng says the system has been allowing his team - each equipped with a computer and a VR headset - to conduct meetings and engage in social interactions such as virtual chess games.

Home-grown creative tech agency Trinax uses AR to spice up events, such as an AR photo booth.

In April, it created an AR-powered property technology platform with a digital marketing firm in China's real estate industry, which offers interactive virtual showrooms and 3D scale models to property developers.

By scanning a QR code on a smartphone, users can experience the showroom remotely. Using AR, digital overlays that provide information about the room or unit will pop up on their screens in real time as users pan their phones.

Trinax's executive director Chong Hengkai says its AR-powered virtual gallery "erases any limitations of traditional marketing in the form of paper materials and provides convenience as customers do not need to walk around the show flat to review the property".

Media tech firm Hiverlab, which offers immersive tech solutions for training and data visualisation, is tapping AR for its latest product, RealityCast. A smartphone-based AR broadcasting solution, it lets users create "engaging presentations with 3D special effects" without requiring a professional studio.

All they need is a smartphone with the RealityCast app (launched last month for Android devices) and access to Hiverlab's cloud-based creator platform, which stores the 3D assets and models used in the AR-powered presentation.

A smartphone acts as a camera to record or stream the presentation. Moving the phone around an embedded 3D model enables viewers to see the model from various angles.

"It is a way for users to make their presentations more fun in virtual events and get their audience out of 'Zoom fatigue'," says Mr Jeremiah Goh, a digital marketing specialist at Hiverlab.


He says the early response from businesses invited to try RealityCast has been great, with the manufacturing and semiconductor industries showing the most interest because it can project complex systems and equipment in 3D.

However, while the pandemic is a boon for VR and AR, it is also presenting challenges.

Mr Bryan Ma, vice-president for devices research at market research firm IDC, says: "The pandemic theoretically should have been a perfect time for VR to take off. It is a technology meant to take the place of in-person interactions after all."

But he says the limitations and costs of the technology - VR headsets are expensive and relatively bulky - are holding the industry back. A VR headset can cost from several hundred dollars to over a thousand dollars.

Mr Jijiashvili says the industry is hampered by the limited number of VR headsets - 19 million by the end of the year, though he predicts this figure to grow to 56 million by 2024. "It is not sensible to replace a physical event with a VR event, simply because there aren't enough VR headsets in people's hands," he says.

Mr Liao notes that the pandemic has disrupted the supply chain by closing factories in China, leading to a shortage in VR and AR headsets that will persist for most of this year. As a result, he expects the VR and AR industry in Asia Pacific to grow by 27.7 per cent year on year, down from an earlier forecast of 64.6 per cent.

For some local immersive tech firms, the pandemic has directly impacted their business model.

Mr Roy Koo, co-founder of VR events firm Ignite VR, says 80 per cent of his firm's revenue comes from setting up VR showcases at conferences and roadshows, which have been cancelled due to the pandemic.

His firm has since accelerated its plans to dive into VR software development, which is not as dependent on events. Several new services have also been launched to cater to a socially distant world. An example is a VR remote party service that provides a custom virtual environment as well as the required VR equipment for up to 10 users to gather and interact virtually.

Another local VR firm that relies on now-cancelled events and workshops is Immersively. Founder Lionel Chok says the start-up is trying to find its footing, though he has seen more inquiries about virtual tours from creative agencies.

He reveals that given the general lack of access to VR headsets, his team is working on a 3D virtual events platform that does not require a headset. Instead, a user's avatar is controlled using a mouse and keyboard like in a first-person game.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 08, 2020, with the headline 'It's time for immersive tech'. Print Edition | Subscribe