BEIRUT: Virtual reality is here. People can now fly a starfighter, paint or make sculptures out of virtual clay, immerse themselves in video games, educational classrooms or operating rooms; there are many uses for this interactive technology that potentially caters to the needs a large range of users.
Virtual reality is expected to become a billion dollar niche market within the MENA region in the near term, according to international research firm Deloitte; By 2020, the market could be worth up to $30 billion, notes Tech advisory firm Digi-Capital.
Worldwide up to 171 million people could be using VR hardware and software 2018, according to research firm KZero.
To begin with, what is virtual reality?
Virtual reality immerses users in an interactive 360-degree environment and works on the premise of creating a virtual world, real or imagined.
Deloitte expects the MENA VR technology growth to be driven by factors including increasing focus by MENA companies to deliver innovative products and services tailored to demands of regional customers.
Usually when VR is mentioned, people automatically think about the gaming industry; however healthcare is becoming one of the largest adopters of virtual reality, sitting at the second spot, above its usage for live events, with $5.1 billion in investment and an estimated 3.4 million users worldwide, according to a study conduct by Goldman Sachs.
In April 2016, the Royal London Hospital was the first hospital in the world to host a virtual reality operation conducted by a top cancer surgeon, which was streamed live in real time to almost 50 thousand people worldwide, allowing viewers to watch the operation happen from any angle they wanted.
VR technology has also been used for immersive medical classrooms, helping doctors experiment in safe 3D conditions, and is being widely deployed across applications involving Diagnostics, Phobia Treatment, Dentistry, and PTSD Treatment and so on.
Virtual reality in healthcare is considered to be in its infancy; however, investments are gradually increasing year after year, and expected to reach its peak by 2021, according to research and consulting firm IndustryARC. Experts foresee a rise in virtual operating rooms that would immerse medical students with real-world scenarios to work with, along with the virtual modeling of organs and human anatomy.
However, most MENA revenues from VR devices and services in 2016 will continue to be driven by video games, according to the report by Deloitte. "The estimated MENA computer gaming market is currently valued at almost $1.5bn and is expected to continue growing, with the majority of growth coming from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) region," the report said.
Game Cooks, a Lebanon-based game development studio, has already gotten their feet wet in the VR world by releasing HOVR, a 3D racing game for Gear VR and are currently working on rolling out a new virtual reality, first-person, shooter game called "VINDICTA" for HTC Vive.
"The VR industry is still new to people, we're still exploring it on multiple fronts; so there's still no reference to what a good VR game looks like, and we're trying to set that standard," Lara Noujaim, director of publishing at GameCooks, told Annahar.
Noujaim further explained that virtual reality has the potential to highly expand beyond the gaming sector and be used under a variety of banners such as marketing, education, and entertainment.
"VR has a huge potential to see success since it shows content in a different and interesting new way that can grab audiences and attract them to wherever the usage is applied," she added.
Lebanon, however, is still weak in integrating this technology into its market and limited to only mobile use by Samsung's Gear VR which has a relatively strong sales rate, according to Sandy Faysal, product manager at Samsung Lebanon.
"Gear VR's sales are very good, especially since we bundled up it up with the purchases of the Samsung S7 and S7 Edge phones, while customers have frequently bought the goggles separately," Faysal told Annahar, noting that barely any phone dealers purchases Gear VR since they find that it won't pick up high sales.
She highlighted that this technology in Lebanon's market is still considered has taking baby-steps, since no other VR technology has been able to breach the country such as the HTC Vive, Playstation VR nor Google Day Dream, thus "this gives our product a sort of exclusivity in the VR market especially since people profit from our bundle, and is cheap if purchased separately," Faysal added.
Outside of the gaming industry, VR is making inroads in the GCC corporate and entertainment sectors based on the introduction of new VR solutions. In early 2016, Etihad Airways released its highly awaited 360-degree virtual reality campaign film starring Hollywood actress Nicole Kidman. The five-minute feature video named "Re-imagine" takes viewers on a fully immersive journey following Kidman within one of its new Airbus A380s flying between New York City and Abu Dhabi.
Dubai's Jumeirah development also developed a digital platform in partnership with Google that uses 360-degree video, 3D sound, whimsical interactions and exclusive hotspots to bring to life Jumeirah's 23 properties around the world. One its most known luxurious example is a tour of seven-star hotel Burj Al-Arab, where viewers are submerged within world-class hotel from every aspect, going as far as allowing people to even take a virtual dip within its high altitude pool and spa area.
When you think of higher education, chances are that virtual reality is not something that immediately comes to mind. In recent years, however, online learning has changed the face of education by becoming a supplement to traditional methods, allowing people to learn at a distance, on their own time and at their own pace. It has become a powerful tool for educators to expand their reach while providing students with a way to get an education without having to step foot into a classroom.
According to a survey by GfK, a market research company, commissioned by Samsung, 85 percent of teachers agreed that virtual reality would have a positive effect on their pupils.
In June 2015, Samsung partnered with McGraw-Hill Education to introduce a suite of hardware and services, dubbed Classroom in a Box, to K-12 schools. The initiative was designed to let schools access digital solutions that are made to increase student interaction.
However, VR as with any other technology has the capability of being a double-edged sword; many challenges are facing virtual reality currently in its technological infancy.
The first being that the technology is out of reach, Less than one percent of the 1.43 billion computers in the world have the graphical capabilities needed for VR, according to research company Gartner. While there are high-end computers that are optimized for it, they can be a costly investment.
"It's very demanding to create a digital interactive experience with VR, since the studio or developer has to play the role of psychologist, designer, and architect and place themselves in the eyes of the user and try to guide them where you want them to go," Ali Hammoud, a product and software designer for virtual reality content, told Annahar.
Hammoud highlighted the large challenge in developing immersive content especially in Lebanon and the MENA region due to the high demand of detail required, especially when creating a 360-video, thus making content not mature enough yet for everyone to enjoy.
"The Lebanese and regional market is still in its early stages, due to lack of proper content, thus the integration of this technology into the region is seeing a sort of gradual growth in commercial use with mobile VR which is a simple plug-and-play option," he said, however, adding, "But barely anyone would invest heavy money to have virtual reality gear outside the mobile world and into the PC and more advanced aspect of this technology, at least not yet."
As it stands, virtual reality faces the same problem that all new and cool technologies experience: high prices.
None of this is to say that the technology doesn't exist for an immersive VR experience. But for the most part, the tech has either yet to be released, is in early developmental stages, or simply beyond the budget of regular consumers.
This means that the majority of consumers remain "priced out" of the VR market, leaving it to early adopters, enthusiasts, and hardcore gamers. This will, of course, change over time as newer models become more powerful and cheaper to produce, but we aren't there quite yet.
The health effects are still unknown; since people have complained that they feel "off," whether it's with a headache, queasiness, blurred vision, or a combination of all three. The long-term effects of VR are still unknown. Many side effects are thought to be only temporary.
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