Last night, I attended the VRPH Casual Meetup at the Mozilla Community Space in Makati. There were three talks which tackled the current standing of Virtual Reality in the Philippines, Mozilla’s initiative for VR, and the Microsoft HoloLens.
Being a tech enthusiast means being familiar with Virtual Reality, which is, as they say, the next big leap in media technology. The advancement from monitors to a VR headset is similar to when we transitioned from feature phones to smartphones. If this is any true, then we should all get rid of our TVs and buy ourselves one of them headsets.
Don’t do that just yet, because the technology is still in the process of improving.
If you’re just learning about this new buzzword in the tech industry, here is a bit of history (It’s actually long).
Virtual Reality Before Capable Technology
The idea of a head-mounted display that aims to immerse the user into a virtual world has been hatched decades ago. In 1961, a company produced Headsight which can be considered one of the granddads of modern VR. The HMD was meant as a training facility for military pilots and for remote surveillance during military conflicts.
Fast forward to 1995 and Nintendo released the commercial VR headset that was intended for gaming, called the Virtual Boy. While it did produce 3D images, the graphics were only in red and black and had a very dry game library of only 20 titles. It was soon discontinued a year after.
The idea was already present, but they didn’t have the appropriate technology to create a true virtual reality experience. That’s why VR was laid to rest for the following years.
Then, Palmer Luckey came into the picture.
The Perfectly-Timed Revival of Virtual Reality
You can’t talk about VR without mentioning the Oculus Rift. What started out as a small garage project turned out to be the first step towards the foundation of a multi-billion dollar industry.
This is all thanks to Palmer Luckey. Developing a great interest in Virtual Reality at an early age, the Oculus founder already had a big collection of head-mounted displays. The problem is, he’s not satisfied with any of them. Either the picture doesn’t follow his movement quickly enough, or the lens were too small, or the graphics were just plain bad you can’t call it a reality.
So what’s a guy to do?
He creates his own VR headset.
Funding his endeavor by repairing and reselling iPhones, he raised around $36K (P1.8M) and was able to create a prototype. On the 6th iteration of his device, then dubbed the “Rift,” he put it up on Kickstarter, attracting tech industry heavyweights the likes of:
- John Carmack, then Game Developer at id Software that is known for Wolfenstein, Doom, Quake, and Rage.
- Brendan Iribe, which is a former executive at Scaleform (Computer game menus) and Gaikai (Video game streaming platform now owned by Sony).
- Gabe Newell, popular in internet culture as Lord Gaben, who is the co-founder of Valve;a game development and digital distribution company.
After demoing the Rift at QuakeCon 2012, the Kickstarter campaign became a huge success, and Palmer Luckey raised a fund of $2.4M (P119M). With this, he puts up an office and worked on the product for 2 years. Then, social media giant Facebook acquired the company and poured close to $2B (P100B) into the development. The rest is history.
Why Did Facebook Buy Oculus?
The ability to see the future is priceless, but to be able to glimpse what’s in it is apparently worth at least $2B (P100B). Mark Zuckerberg believed that this is the next big thing after mobile computing, and Zuck didn’t want to be just riding the wave: he wanted to create it.
The deal to buy Oculus VR was up and over quickly so as not to slow down the development team. The Facebook creator didn’t just see the Oculus as a gaming peripheral. Instead, he saw it a potential immersive virtual and augmented reality device that people in the future will use everywhere. On the office, for tourism, for architecture, education… Everything.
And VR was revived in this period of technology because of the low costs of components compared to what was available all those years ago.
Introducing VR to the Masses
I would say that the next big step into the Virtual Reality movement, is Google’s release of the Cardboard. This simple and ingenious craft allowed anyone with at least $25 (P1.2K) and a mid-range phone to get an idea of what VR is like.
Google Cardboard is a foldable box with special lenses that you can easily put together in minutes. Then, you just have to slide in your smartphone into the slot, boot up your VR app, and voila! VR on the go!
And good Virtual Reality apps are readily available at the Google Play store. As we know, good software is what makes ‘good’ hardware. Right now you can try roller coaster simulations, shooting games, and virtual trips that give a decent degree of immersion.
The Main Players in the Current VR Industry
While mobile powered Virtual Reality is fun in its own right, they say that a PC-powered device is going to be much better.
As of now, there are 3 big names in the VR gaming industry: Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, and Playstation VR.
The two power players are Oculus Rift and HTC Vive. Let’s talk about PSVR later.
From the two, the clear winner in terms of features and technical prowess is the HTC Vive, which also happens to have the support of Valve. This means you can expect a plethora of content to be available for it in a short time. It also has the advantage of having two motion controllers available at launch, which allows the gamer to conjure virtual hands in the digital space.
But perhaps the biggest advantage of the Vive is the “Room-Scale VR.” When in Oculus you will need to sit down and use a controller to play, the Vive headset allows you to move around the room to be able to explore the space.
Meanwhile, the Oculus Touch which is their version of motion controls will ship a few months later. Their exclusive games are also playable with the Vive. As of now, the Rift’s only real advantage is the slightly lower price tag.
And now for Sony’s Playstation VR. The veteran electronics company relied on its extensive experience with interactive entertainment, as well as in their R&D department to create something with a modern look and ergonomic form factor. They also made it so the PSVR can be used with the base version of a Playstation 4.
There are around 40 Million PS4 units in homes right now. And this large user base paired with the low price tag compared to the other two headsets, as well as their partnership with multiple game developers, all ensure a good following for the Playstation VR. The graphical fidelity is not as good as the Oculus or the Vive, but their low-cost option has the potential to become the consumer’s favorite.
Virtual Reality in the Philippine Setting
It’s good that we’re able to engage with Virtual Reality pretty early on because this only means we can grow along with this global industry.
This is thanks in part to the concerted effort of the VRPH community.
Virtual Reality Philippines might seem like a hobby group at first, but it actually has a more noble motive. This is to make our country a VR development hub in Southeast Asia. They aim to do this with a 3-phase plan that started in 2015.
The first phase started in 2015 and signals the introduction of VR in the Philippines. They did this by conducting meetups and demos with the existing mobile VR devices back then. They toured schools, set up booths in conferences, and basically made people aware that this thing exists.
The quick spread of the VR fever could also be attributed to the very social nature of Filipinos. We love to try something new, and when we do, we can’t help but share it with family and friends and convince them to try it out, too.
The result is a good foundation for the next part of their plan.
The next phase is establishing VR in the Philippines. Now that the consuming public know about VR and headsets can be bought even in small tech accessory shops nationwide, their next target were the app developers.
Over the course of this year 2016, VRPH has hosted several hackathons, seminars and talks in partnership with the big leagues like Globe, PLDT, and even organizations from neighboring countries.
They also conducted plenty of events like:
- Manila Vive Jam which is the first public showing of the HTC Vive.
- Virtual Suntukan, where the violence all happen digitally.
- Hello, Virtual World which is a hackathon and Mobile VR App Development Workshop.
- Immersify which is a 2-day exhibit featuring the local VR scene.
- And many others.
These large-scale events along with other smaller community meetups help arm developers and creatives with the right knowledge for making their own applications for Virtual Reality. There are already a good number of Pinoy-made VR apps in the Google Play store, and I know the number is only going to go higher in the next few years.
The last phase in VRPH’s agenda is to establish the Philippines as a VR Development Hub in Southeast Asia. This is a whole other level of Pinoy pride because we’re not only going to be in the global spotlight because of a single person, but because of a thriving community.
We have so many great talents among devs and this is being recognized by multinational companies too. Ubisoft, creator of hits like the Far Cry Series, Assassin’s Creed Series, and the recent Watch Dogs Series, recently opened a branch here in the Philippines.
We also have plenty of local players like Anino Games, Synergy88, Skillshot Labs, and many others. It’s exciting to see what these Pinoy devs can create for Virtual Reality.
Other Uses of VR Aside from Games
With everything you’ve read above, you might be thinking that VR is useless if you’re not a gamer. It actually has a lot of applications outside of gaming.
Entertainment might be the second biggest purpose of Virtual Reality. Just type 360 videos on Youtube and you’ll be presented with thousands of user-generated VR content that you can view with a VR device.
With YoutubeVR you can:
- Learn how to start a fire with a sandwich bag in VR.
- Watch a The Weeknd music video while looking around.
- Go on a virtual skydive trip.
- Get a close up, immersive encounter with Hammerhead Sharks.
Aside from entertainment, companies are also utilizing the power of Virtual Reality to promote their products or services. Real estate companies can let potential home buyers see the house digitally with a virtual showroom. Automotive companies are also doing the same thing with their cars. Architects can soon also create models all in the virtual space.
Locally, I have seen TaskUs promote their offices with a 360 video so you can look around at their lobby while sitting on your favorite sofa at home. Click here if you haven’t seen it. You’ll have to view it on the Facebook phone app though.
I believe education is also one of the biggest and most important use of Virtual Reality. The increased immersion should be a catalyst for learning. The wow factor taking away the boredom. Make teaching great again!
The Main Challenge of VR
There’s no denying this, the biggest hurdle to mass adoption of the technology is the painfully high cost of entry. The average earner will have to save up 4 months’ worth of salary to be able to afford a VR-ready system as well as a headset the likes of the Oculus Rift or the HTC Vive.
We can opt for mobile VR devices like Google Cardboard or those white VR headsets that you always see on Facebook. It’s just that phones are too underpowered for truly immersive Virtual Reality. And not only are the headsets expensive, you’ll have to build a monster rig to handle the technical requirements of this tech.
VR, in its current state, is a very niche product in the Philippines. I would guesstimate that nationwide adoption of the technology will only happen once the total costs are brought down to the P40K levels.
A Bandage Solution…?
If I would suggest something to address this main challenge, I would try setting up VR computer shops, in the same vein as Rock Band Net Cafe.
Robinsons Metro East and Antipolo have these VR arcades where kids can sit on moving capsules, put on HMDs, and blast spaceships away. It’s like Timezone’s 5D arcades but rather than just a big screen in front of you, they’re using Virtual Reality. I can see a lot of people trying it out.
So in a VR net cafe, the headset to use would be the HTC Vive. The players will be renting a virtual reality room to use the headset and play games or watch media. P200 for an hour of use sounds like a good price.
The weakness with this would be orientation and property insurance. People can fall over by tripping on cables so there will need to be proper orientation in the beginning, as well as supervision.
I think VRPH is onto something by promoting Virtual Reality in the Philippines. Not only are they exposing our generation to the latest tech in its early stages, but they could also create plenty of opportunities for our local developers.
I do hope that this warm reception of Filipinos to VR tech continue to build up and sustain itself to make way for new innovations. I’m looking forward to the next price drops so I can buy a VR rig of my own. Or perhaps I’ll attend the next VRPH meetup and hopefully get to demo a unit.
How about you? Have you experienced Virtual Reality on your own? Let me know on the comments below!
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