CES 2017: Disruptive Technologies

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Virtual/Mixed Reality: Am I really here, or is it really there? 

Those of you that have followed my musings for the last few years know that virtual reality in all its forms (VR, AR and MR) is something I am very interested in. The question has been where do these all fit. Rather than repeat what I have already written, if you are interested in an overview of the present state of virtual reality and the differences between VR, AR and the upcoming MR, please click here.

CES17-HoloLens-1.jpgThis year at CES there were impressive gains in the number of offerings both at the low and the upper end of the growing VR market. Yes, there are now a number of cellphones that work with a viewer to let you experience very basic virtual reality but that is like using a 1980s color TV to experience watching a modern high-budget movie. There was much higher-end VR gear than last year however. Not that long ago we were all standing in line to experience the Oculus Rift, or the HTC Vive, and we were waiting for the yet to be defined ultimate VR gear, the Microsoft HoloLens. We are still waiting for the HoloLens to become commercially available, as it is a true self-contained VR computer/headset. As of this writing it is only available for developers and at a very high price ($3k to $5k) so it is still kind of in its own “elephant in the room” state. It promises to be astounding but we will still have to wait and see. 

Some notable new VR hardware was announced but it did not seem like to be more advanced than what we have had for the last six to eight months. Lenovo introduced a VR headset that seems similar to the HTC Vive, or the Oculus Rift. There is a new pair of android powered smart glasses offered by Osterhout Design Group that have virtually reality capability; they have cinema quality displays and give the same virtual display size as looking at a very large TV. The key interest is that they let you run AR programs that add virtual scenes or items superimposed on the real world. I guess these will let you play Pokémon Go while seeing the real world. VR and AR were everywhere at CES in Las Vegas this week, with countless booths displaying headsets and accessories.

CES17-VR-360deg-glass-globe.jpgA number of studios and creators also used the event to either launch or preview new experiences. But the biggest advancements may not be available to consumers for another year or two. Global Imagination from the UK brought its “VR Sphere” to CES, which displays 360° videos on an oversized glass globe.

There are several very practical applications for VR in use and in fact there are some that have been in use for the last few years. For example, Amazon’s product preview lets you visualize different size and brand TVs in your home and the home improvement giant Lowe’s has partnered with Lenovo and Google to introduce Lowe’s Vision, which can take measurements using augmented and virtual reality tools powered by Google’s Tango. The Lowe's Vision app enables customers to easily measure any room in their home and style it placing real Lowe's products in their own environment through augmented reality.

CES17-Oculus-Rift.jpgSoftKinetic, a subsidiary of Sony, demonstrated technology using a customized Oculus Rift headset. The idea is very interesting.  Using your hands instead of controllers in VR would be an advancement into capitalizing the “R” in reality, this seems pretty impressive. However, we were cautioned that it may be another two years before we see anything like it integrated into the VR headsets from major manufacturers.

No doubt AR, VR and soon MR will totally disrupt everything from entertainment to home and office design, medical procedures, military training and now one of the biggest drivers in entertainment technology, the one that played a big part in driving the choice of VHS video recording over the, at that time, slightly more mature and capable Beta Max, that driver being the adult film industry, has signed on to producing their product in VR. Talk about disruptive! 

One area of disappointment in VR universe, however, is the lack of excellent content, especially in the entertainment sector, and not just movies but also gaming, virtual touring and just about everything else. Still, the general feeling is that as the technology improves and the devices become more capable and able to provide a good quality experience when being driven by less than a high-powered gaming like computer that the content will come. For example, 20th Century Fox has announced that their Innovation Lab is working on a VR experience that will let you cross the species line in Planet of the Apes and let you band together with other apes to fight the humans. 

So who is the leader in VR in January 2017? I must agree with other reviewers that right now it seems to be HTC with their commitment to rapidly progress and to eventually offer a wireless VR headset (like what we think the Hololens will be) If you are interested in the VR universe I would wait—not long, but unless you really want one now and recognize that you will want to replace it on a short cycle I would wait. I am a techie and I love new stuff, but I have decided to wait until I see the HoloLens and the new content later this year. 


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