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MWC2016: Networks are going virtual, why not reality?

One of the biggest digital/gadget trends at this year’s Mobile World Congress was undoubtedly virtual reality. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg talked it up in his keynote, an entire conference session was devoted to it, and device makers like Samsung, LG, HTC, Oculus Rift and Alcatel announced new VR headsets.

There were also plenty of demos on the exhibition floor, such as Samsung’s VR rollercoaster and SK Telecom’s “Extreme Submarine” demonstrating “immersive VR” (see what they did there?). Deutsche Telekom showcased a VR mock-up with a prerecorded  360º view of its stand (that was also being broadcast live back to DT’s office in Bonn using a 360º camera).

I tried it.

It’s kind of weird at first, but the 360 effect is jolly good fun. On the downside, my eyes got sore after a couple of minutes. And to be honest, it’s hard to feel immersed with a bulky display strapped to your face.

The controls within the displays are quite innovative, and they’re getting even better. On the SK Telecom stand, Korean start-up company Visual Camp was demonstrating its eye-tracking solution for VR apps that enables VR headsets to track the location of your pupils to know which way you’re looking.

“You can look at an app icon to open that app, look at a video ‘play’ button, to start a video, look down to pause the video, and look up at the right-hand corner to exit,” explained Visual Camp founder and CEO Charles Seok.

Users can also look at ads in virtual environments to get more information on the associated company or product.

Visual Camp – which has incubation backing from SK Telecom and is a member of Google Campus Seoul – initially plans to license its software to OEMs. After that, the company will launch an SaaS model targeting game/content developers and VR advertisers.  

The sudden interest in VR interests me in no small part because I wrote a paper on it in grad school in the early 1990s. At the time, proto-internet gurus like Howard Rheingold were optimistic about the possibilities of virtual reality as a way to make the internet a truly engaging experience and take us headlong into the digital era.

Clearly that optimism was misplaced, at least regarding some of the ambitious timelines being thrown around at the time, and for fairly obvious reasons. What’s different now?

For one thing, 4G is here, 4.5G is here in places, and 5G is coming. Technological barriers like bandwidth, computing power and screen resolution have mostly been cleared. For another, we’ve entered the era of digital natives where internet connectivity and digital social interaction are centerpieces of daily life for both people and businesses (the digital divide notwithstanding).

Still, the obvious question for old people like me who saw VR flop once is: what are the business cases for VR now? What will it be used for?  

Daniel Garcia Catalan, market developer for Deutsche Telekom Group Innovation, says potential applications for VR include corporate apps like showcasing office space, virtual conferencing, games and live sports events where you can be “in” the stadium watching the game, or even experience the action from the POV of your favorite player.

“We can also use it to show customers our smart home solutions. Usually you would build a model living room to demonstrate smart home apps, but many of our shops are too small to do that. So you can use a VR environment instead," he says.

For all that, Garcia Catalan notes that VR is very much in the experimental stage right now, both in terms of technology and business cases. “Right now we’re just looking at VR, testing it, doing trial and error to see the possibilities. But there is no solid timeline right now – we’ll take it as it goes and see what happens.”

That’s a wise approach. For all the buzz over VR at MWC, it still smacks of novelty. And it’s hard not to be reminded of a similar buzz a few MWCs ago over 3D television and 3D mobile displays. That was going to be the next big thing too. 

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