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Virtual reality at MWC 2016
Image: Getty Images/D. Ramos

The last visorless generation

Janelle Dumalaon, Barcelona
February 24, 2016

The Mobile World Conference is known as the event that sets the agenda for the future of the tech sector. But the future lies not quite in this world, as Janelle Dumalaon reports from Barcelona.


At first, you see someone doing fancy footwork with a football. Then the football is passed on to other friends standing to the left, somewhere past your line of sight. You swivel your head to watch them - and over your shoulder. You look up at the sunny sky, hanging over the tree-lined plaza you're standing in. And behind you, the street running along the plaza.

You're not really there, at least not in the physical sense. You're wearing a Gear VR headset watching video shot with a 360-degree camera. As opposed to viewing say, a film clip, you find yourself inserted into the center of a story.

It could be one someone else is telling you, or it could be your own, a memory you may want to relive. Streaming VR would make it possible for you to watch the story unfold as it goes along.

Virtual reality demonstrations like the one above have been ubiquitous at the MWC this year. It's a reminder of how quickly trends move on in the fast-moving world of tech - 2015 was the year of the smartwatch and other wearable tech, and that hype permeated last year's MWC accordingly.

.This time around however, few have wearables on their minds, after fewer than expected have had them on their bodies since they've been on the market.

That the MWC this year was all about virtual reality started from the pre-opening festivities where Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg made a surprise appearance at Samsung's Galaxy S7 launch to announce a social media-virtual reality partnership.

But days after the MWC opened its doors, it's still high on the agenda. In a keynote speech delivered to MWC attendees, Zuckerberg highlighted the changing nature of consuming and sharing content, starting from text, to photos and videos over time, as Internet speeds steadily improved.

"What I think we will get to next, and that will happen sooner than we think, is the ability to share whole scenes," Zuckerberg said. "And not just a little 2D video of something that you care about, but really, a whole scene."

2016 Samsung S 7Gear VR
Samsung's S7 Gear VR has no doubt been a major highlight at this year's show in BarcelonaImage: Getty Images/D. Ramos

And Facebook might not be such a bad place to start for consumers only beginning to slowly grasp virtual reality's existence, said Arthur van Hoff, co-founder of cinematic VR app maker Jaunt. "Right now we're focused on creating a market," said van Hoff. "We're making sure people understand what's possible."

Huge opportunities

And the potential applications are broad. Van Hoff told MWC attendees of a virtual reality panel at the MWC that his company recently took VR headsets to nursing homes, seeing possible applications for older people who are no longer able to visit their children, or attend family events. VR imaging company Immersive Media has it's own unconventional examples.

"We've done a lot of work with the military, with soldiers and post-traumatic stress disorder," said CEO Myles McGovern "And it can be amazing what can be done, putting people back in an experience, from a medical standpoint."

But those are specialty applications. Reality is an all-encompassing subject, virtual reality is arguably broader. And Kevin Curran, a reader of computer science at the University of Ulster, predicted speedy widespread adoption of consumer VR tech.

"VR is the magic ingredient that can somehow make this virtual world which is gathering all our money, all our services, to make it better," he said. “You'll see people in subways and cafes and elsewhere with their visors on, because it will be so addictive. It takes you out of yourself and suspends your disbelief."

Redesigning an experience

He said that even in the areas of life where it's currently hard to apply virtual reality - like going to the supermarket to pull products one wants to buy off shelves - there will soon be more options around VR.

"If you're a VR content creator, what you're doing is redesigning an experience," said Curran. "It's just so immersive and powerful, the content is finally starting to be generated, and the technology is coming down to almost acceptable prices."

Virtual Reality: Visual revolution in film

But getting an entire world to don VR visors isn't inevitable. The industry surrounding VR - app developers, content creators, headgear manufacturers and so on - face challenges.

"The biggest problem on the market is that monetization opportunities are few," said Mihai Pohuntu, who heads up the emerging platforms unit at Samsung. "There aren't really many ways developers can make money."

But Immersive Media CEO McGovern think this issue will be resolved over time in much the same way that mass media have always found revenue. He refers to the intense interest in virtual reality as a "gold rush" - and advertisers will want to get behind it.

"What we will see is to different from how media have developed over the years," McGovern said. "Brands will get behind it. Virtual reality is going to continue to grow and explode. I think the impact that this space will have on the way we consume content, is absolutely amazing."

Curran agreed and said that these impacts will be felt very soon. "This will be the last visorless generation," he said.

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