Learnings from the VRX Europe conference

The VRX event on May 11-12 2017 in London brought together hundreds of the top executives in the VR space across gaming, entertainment, industry and brand marketing to demonstrate the latest hardware, unreleased content and real-world uses of virtual reality. Here are 7 key takeaways.

To meet hundreds of companies pioneering VR, check out the VRX 2017 conference & expo on December 7-8 in San Francisco - head here for more information

1. We’re seeing big growth in consumer VR, but it’ll take years to get to mainstream adoption

Stephanie Llamas from SuperData revealed their latest data on forecasts and trends in the state of the industry address. She talked at length about how the rise of VR is mimicking the rise of the internet and smartphones but cautioned that VR’s growth will be a little slower.

“We’re definitely going to see a boost in the next few years, but when it really sees its time to shine is not for another 5-8 years” But she adds that this shouldn’t scare you away from diving into VR now as “you’re setting the stage for a technology that’s going to be transformative. In 2020 you’ll start to see software surpassing hardware sales. And that’s when monetization really begins to happen at scale”.

2. VR provides big opportunities across enterprise, but there are barriers to overcome

Discussion around enterprise use-cases was rife both in sessions and around the exhibition floor. Simon Jones who leads Unreal Engine’s Enterprise division moderated an panel and talked about how companies are starting to adopt VR to create huge efficiencies across industry.

What’s very clear is that VR and immersive tech more broadly has many different applications to a whole variety of verticals. From car design and prototyping at Ford, through worker training at McDonald’s and onto marketing holidays at TUI Group, the array of application for the technology is vast – and the benefits in terms of productivity, cost efficiencies and customer engagement can be even bigger still.

But where there are opportunities, there are inevitably challenges. A panel featuring representatives from Microsoft, Ford and the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre amongst others discussed the technical and cultural hurdles that need to be overcome to enable mass adoption of immersive technologies. What was clear was that demonstrating real use cases is key and ROI needs to be shown right from the start. Choosing the right project in collaboration with senior executives can massively impact the rate and scale of adoption. It’s ultimately no use embarking on a project without a realistic understanding of the objective being sought and the backend IT systems in place. Does VR really improve the process and are the applications transferrable within the enterprise architecture already in place?

In terms of scaling, the thinking is that creating easy shared experiences is the next big step for design validation and other collaborative experiences and this will create huge efficiencies going forward. This tech – in the many forms it’s taking - is the future of computing, that’s for sure, but there are big implementation challenges.

3. VR games are coming thick and fast – but it’s becoming less about VR and more about the games now

On the opening games panel on the second day of the conference, Callum Underwood who looks after developer strategy at Oculus suggested that the perceived challenges of dealing with motion sickness, signposting information to players and creating comfortable location systems are increasingly outdated discussions.

"At this point in the VR game space, we need to move past that," he says. "It's been three and a half years, plus the 20-plus year history of trying to figure that out. When I talk about design for VR games now, I'm thinking less about what the UI is, what the movement's like, and whether there's motion sickness - because I assume that if you're building a VR game, that should just be second nature. You should have solved that already.

"When I look at a VR game's design, I'm actually looking at how deep a game is. Does it have narrative? Does it have a game design document? Does it have a plan for post-launch success?"

In other words, VR is moving more into established game development territory where it’s less about the user being wowed by the VR and more about the user being wowed by the game.

4. Is “XR” becoming a catch-all term?

The debate over VR versus AR (not forgetting MR) is becoming a bit of a non-starter – in high end industry circles at least.

Much of the discussion at the VRX conference was about the specific applications of various immersive technologies, not about one being inherently better or worse than another. Of course, VR is leading the charge right now in terms of both hardware and content development, but there were some great examples talked about and showcased at the event across the whole spectrum. For the first time I heard “XR” being freely used as a catch-all term to cover all bases. The taxonomy of immersive technology has been constantly shifting but now t seems that some parts of the industry are looking to categorise the development and consumption of immersive experiences in a less narrow fashion. They want something to hang the whole gamut of experiences on.

However, from conversations I’ve had with senior industry figures across the spectrum, it’s not necessarily that simple. Some give very short shrift to the usage of “XR” on the basis that for it to become a collective industry term, we would need the ability to develop completely platform-agnostic applications and content which is currently just not practical or even possible in most cases. Some also think even including “Reality” or “R” in a catch-all term at all is itself confusing and that actually, categorising the whole thing simply as the “immersive industry” is much more helpful.

But the fact was that at the conference, there was a lot of use of the “XR” term. Whether this is perceived as unnecessary / lazy / short-cutting… or a useful way of categorising the industry, only time will tell. Let us know your thoughts!

5. The infrastructure supporting VR experience development and distribution is improving massively

Frank Soqui, who leads Intel’s global VR team from the US talked about the huge hardware and software innovations that are happening to enable VR/AR/MR as the next mass media. “We’re at the beginning of an adoption phase… the PC is becoming the main driver of really immersive experiences” he said.

And this new computing paradigm demands a huge amount of processing power, amazing graphics, platform technologies and highly responsive systems. Talking about Intel’s partnerships with Microsoft and a vast array of studios and developers across the industry, Frank talked about experiences as diverse as using VR to train surgeons to the ability of virtualising iconic people and places. Sincerely he said “It’s not about a single killer app… it’s about making sure we have the hardware and developmental tools that are going to help create this future. We’re on the verge of something wonderful here”.

And with the likes of Unity, Unreal Engine, Oculus, HTC Vive, Google, Autodesk, 3DEXCITE, Sony and more all also having senior level presence at the event, the signs are good that indeed the hardware, platform, processing and content creation pipelines are becoming established to enable developers to make and distribute amazing VR experiences for consumers and businesses alike.

6. There are huge opportunities for developers – but big competition too

There was a big buzz around the conference from those who are leading development studios about the opportunities coming from all quarters. On the games side, news of Google’s acquisition of Owlchemy Labs was hot and the feeling is that it’s all to play for in VR gaming. Presentations from CCP Games, Criterion Games and Anshar Studios in particular showed just how far VR game development has come in a relatively short space of time – and that it’s not only the biggest publishers that are ruling the roost in this emerging space.

On the enterprise side, the advice from Stephanie Llamas of SuperData was clear that while there are a lot of ways you can apply VR and a lot of ways you can develop VR, “you want to look at the places where there are most holes”. Look for areas where there’s big demand but less supply. For Stephanie, two areas where there is huge demand are healthcare and education – and there are a huge array of niche applications to focus on in each.

She accepted that there’s also massive demand in manufacturing design and engineering as well as marketing and advertising but made the point that there are very established suppliers already servicing these markets so the smart start-ups are doing something different. The simple advice: differentiate to prosper.

7. VR isn’t necessarily just about headsets

What was clear from both the exhibition floor and the sessions is that experiencing VR is not necessarily just about wearing a headset. With location based VR becoming ever more prevalent and companies using VR more and more for in-house training and shared working, the portability and multiple use of headsets is becoming a real problem. In a panel session on enterprise VR applications, Martin McDonnell from Soluis Group talked about the problem of “sweaty head syndrome” in getting people to use HMDs in a social or work context. With NSC Creative’s walk-in dome and Igloo Vision’s cube being showcased on the exhibition floor it’s clear that immersive experiences don’t just have to be limited to HMDs and I think these opportunities to share immersive experiences will become ever more important as the industry grows.

Overall summary…

The conference was very enlightening. The speakers were passionate, and the vibe in the rooms was electric the whole way through. With a spread of senior executives from industries as diverse as Entertainment, Healthcare, Automotive, Travel, Aerospace, Retail, Advertising and more this was a diverse group of high level executives and decision makers talking about the future of a medium I personally believe has the power to change the world in ways we’re only just beginning to imagine.

To meet hundreds of companies pioneering VR, check out the VRX 2017 conference & expo on December 7-8 in San Francisco - head here for more information