By: Bob Tamburri
The Practical Side of Virtual Reality Conferencing
We’ve talked about the promise of virtual reality in conferencing (and other business) applications and the technological requirements to achieving that vision. What remains is perhaps the most difficult challenge – the political/economic reality (or PER) of achieving wide market acceptance for any given technology. Often people will rush to embrace the newest, coolest gadgets only be either seriously disappointed when it doesn’t live up to their expectations, or they’re utterly horrified to discover the dark side of that technology (such as security and/or privacy issues). In this last segment we’ll explore this aspect of VR and how it might affect its ultimate adoption for business applications.
Likelihood of acceptance
Like any new technology, VR’s acceptance in the conferencing and collaboration world, will largely depend on two factors: user transparency and cost.
The first will require that the culmination of core technologies result not only in a user experience that is both immersive and gratifying, but one that integrates seamlessly with people’s natural motions and professional workflow. That will also mean providing unobtrusive hardware along with an intuitive interface.
Cost can also be expected to decline along with advances in technology and both of these factors will be driven to a significant extent by VRs success in more mainstream (e.g. consumer) markets. Current VR headset systems (those not intended for use with smart-phones) can cost upwards of $400. Multiply that by a dozen or more needed for the average conference and it could well be several thousand dollars. Even at that price-point the lack of need for video cameras, phones and voice-processing may still give VR a distinct cost advantage over current systems.
Other factors to wide acceptance include how incentivized companies are to adopt such technology, like their need to cut costs associated with travel. Companies may migrate to more remote solutions for all but the most critical meetings if in the future travel become prohibitively expensive. Another factor will be the pervasiveness of younger employees who are less tethered to traditional methods and are quicker to embrace new technology.
It should be noted that the success of consumer VR is still in a state of flux. Even with many early adopters, it has yet to experience the level of growth sufficient to be considered mainstream. Any hope for adoption in markets such as business may very well depend on how well it does with consumers in the coming years. That would give it the necessary economy of scale advantage to enable business solutions providers to be cost competitive.
Lastly, the key to VR’s success will be the fluidity and quality of the user experience. It must be a truly viable alternative to an in-person meeting. While gaming users are pretty demanding in this regard, business users are likely to be more so. In fact, they might choose to abandon it completely in favor of more traditional solutions if it does not live up to their expectations. It must not only be unobjectionable, but offer functionality that is not available through other means.
Assuming all these things fall into place, any resistance by the majority of people mentioned above may begin to erode. In fact, according to one recent study by Dell, Intel & consultants Penn Schoen Berland published in The Wall Street Journal, 57% of business people still prefer in-person meetings over remote ones. However, in the same study 63% (77% among millenials) said that given the right technology, they would be willing to give VR a try.
Who Will the Players Be?
If the above mentioned system is imagined, then the hardware requirements will actually be less important than the software requirements. It’s hard to see current video-conferencing solutions providers getting directly into the VR headset business. More likely, these will be provided through partnerships with those that are leaders in that business. There may be differences from consumer VR in the number and type of sensors and how they’re used, but that could also be handled by the OEM providers which can do this on a customized basis.
The real differences will be in the software and DSP and it’s a fair bet that these would be the companies that provide the current VC technology along with those developing network-based solutions. We already see these two areas merging heavily and that is only expected to increase in the near future. There will still be a need for a microphone for voice pickup, which could be either a boom mic or a small omni-directional mic integrated into the VR headset. The former would be preferable for the best presence and acoustic isolation, while the latter will have the advantage of being less obtrusive, but will likely pick up more ambient noise. In any event, it may still be required to include high-quality acoustic echo cancellation as part of the DSP set. However, if the audio playback is via headphones rather than speakers, it may not need to be as sophisticated as today’s AEC algorithms, which are mainly designed for use with mic/speaker audio hardware. There will also be a need for intelligent mic mixing, so certain participants are given priority along with their associated visuals. These technologies will no doubt be supplied by many of usual industry suspects that provide them today but the hardware may be very different and it may be that they simply license their technology to those providing the VR system.
Winners & Losers
Like any disruptive technology, there will not only be huge opportunities but also the chance that those that currently dominate will need to adapt their business model or risk losing to new players. If we step back from this a bit in order to view the bigger picture, we will see a definite shift in the provider base for VR technology. Winners will undoubtedly be the current VR suppliers along with associated networking solutions providers, software and audio DSP providers. Losers will be camera manufacturers and the more traditional suppliers of audio products such as amplifiers, DSP hardware, speakers & mics. Conferencing companies that are intent on staying in the game may provide systems comprised of their proprietary DSP along with OEM VR hardware. Also among winners will be the businesses and institutions that embrace this technology and benefit from the convenience and potential cost-savings of VR. Companies that do not, or that delay a decision to adopt VR may find themselves at a disadvantage.
It’s a foregone conclusion that VR conferencing promises to be a valuable communication and collaboration tool in the near future. The most compelling argument of all may not be the benefits of the technology itself, but the business opportunities it presents. VR was expected to be a $1B industry by the end of 2016, with 70% of that being in hardware alone, and the remaining 30% being content/software. According to industry forecasts, that is expected to grow to over $150B (combined VR/AR) by 2020, with $30B of that being VR.
AR is a whole different story. While complimentary to VR applications, by itself it’s more widely suited to mobile apps. With conferencing becoming increasingly mobile, AR could simply overtake mobile communications as we know it. Everything from person-to-person communications, social media and simply how we interface with the world will have an AR component. Smart phones will be replaced by AR glasses, which allows us to view information integrated seamlessly with our real environment. We will no longer browse the web but rather the web will be integrated into the world around us. The beginnings of this were seen at this year’s CES.
As if the conferencing applications for VR were not sufficient, there are a host of additional applications that could potentially transform business in the future. Take, for example, training; it may be possible to offer virtual hands-on training using VR, where participants can interact with virtual products in real time and gain a real feel for how they function. This could even be applied to setup, installation and maintenance, which would be invaluable in our industry. Another example would be to offer virtual product demos to prospective customers rather than having to schlep gear around. Taken a step further, offering virtual tours of how a complete system solution would look and operate once installed. Using existing 3D modeling software (such as REVIT) used predominantly by architects, these systems, along with the environments in which they are deployed can be presented to customers in lieu of or to supplement typical drawings or computer models. Customers can then explore the entire setup, from head-end racks to speakers, mics, controllers and displays. In the mainstream, it could certainly have a profound effect on people’s on-line shopping experience, where everything from clothing to electronics to travel could be “sampled” before being purchased.
Of course, it can be difficult to accurately predict exactly how things will take shape. If current trends continue, it’s safe to say both VR & AR technology will be as ubiquitous as smart phones are now. It’s possible that VR may just be one of several solutions we turn to when conducting business. Along with traditional conferencing, augmented reality and face-to-face meetings, virtual reality is positioned to be a mainstay of the business and commercial worlds, and it will be here very soon. That’s just a stark reality…virtually speaking.
Video Conferencing Goes Virtual – Part 1 Video Conferencing Goes Virtual – Part 2
Bob Tamburri is a veteran of the AV industry who (among other things) has been a Product Manager for companies such as TOA and Sony and has been heavily involved in bringing new products and technologies, including ones for audio production, sound reinforcement, AV presentation, conferencing and life safety to market. He is a charter member of the World Future Society, which analyzes & reports on technological and social megatrends. Bob is also an accomplished trainer, technical writer, craftsman & musician.