Here's why virtual reality could be worth $150bn in just four years

You want investment ideas? Look no futher than virtual reality (VR), as Propeller PR’s managing director Kieran Kent explains

The concept of virtual reality (VR) has underpinned science-fiction films and stories for decades and the idea of people entering imaginary new worlds via tech had a ‘moment’ in the 90s. It swiftly joined the junk heap of great unrealised ideas because the tech of the era was as primitive as a pummelling from Mortal Kombat’s Kano.

But this year the medium is set to explode as consumers begin to encounter, play with and immerse themselves in VR in retail outlets, games stores, concert halls and travel agents across London. That’s the theory at least, as the processing power of mid-range computers and games consoles finally looks able to match the imaginations and ideas of developers, film-makers and other visionary creative types.

The other factor is affordability – the price of entry is within reach of the mainstream thanks to a spectrum of headsets and hardware that matches different-sized pockets, from Google Cardboard and Samsung Gear to the higher end Oculus Rift and PlayStationVR. These factors mean there is a chance that this time around VR will get traction and potentially become a transformative technology.

Many are predicting the VR industry will be worth £1bn within the next 12 months and up to $150bn by 2020 when it is bundled together with its less sexy sibling Augmented Reality (digital content over-layering an existing ‘real world’ environment). But how popular can VR really become and how quickly will we see mainstream success?

Propeller PR brought together a panel of industry insiders from the travel, film and gaming sectors chaired by Michael Rundle, editor of wired.co.uk, to talk to a room packed with representatives of the capital’s marketing, creative and design community last week. All were eager to learn more about VR and to play with the tech on hand at the London office of WPP agency Essence.

The panel gave some great insights into their own VR experiences and former Sony games expert turned consultant Shahid Ahmad, said that VR now gives us the ability to “lucid dream”.  He discussed the goose-bump moment that came when a virtual character stared him straight in the eye and addressed him by name.  The event explored the potential of the tech and how content creators were approaching this new creative medium. There was an optimistic view that gaming developers would start with a blank page, stretch their imaginations and not just unleash a wave of bloodthirsty shoot-em-ups. The very nature of VR might mitigate against this -  Jason Kingsley OBE, co-founder of British games developer Rebellion, pointed out that once in the virtual space, the impact of what users see is magnified, so “instead of dialling it up to 11, it’s more likely [developers] will turn it down to eight.”

Kingsley hopes that the medium will be embraced for its amazing cultural potential beyond games and outlined how incredible it would be to stand among the groundlings at The Globe. Others are thinking this way as the Southbank Centre has revealed it will be introducing a VR initiative this year that will place users in the middle of the Philharmonic Orchestra during the climax of a concert. A keen zoologist, Kingsley also spoke of the fragile ecosystems that could be preserved with VR acting as the transporter for the keenest of tourists to, for instance, The Galapagos.

Of course, new tech will inevitably lead to more boundary-pushing and taboo-breaking creators will want to come up with more extreme experiences. However, companies that are household names, like Samsung, Disney and Thomas Cook will be the conduits to bring VR into the mainstream and they will not want to be associated with edgier content.

It is early days for VR and the challenges range from educating businesses about the opportunities and encouraging mass sampling at scale to figuring out the killer app that will make everybody want to buy the kit (think how The Matrix arriving on DVD drove sales of the players). As Karl Woolley from Framestore, the visual effects company behind films like Gravity, pointed out: “The amount of things you can experience right now as an individual is incredibly limited.”

Tamara Sword of tech specialist agency TRM&C added: “We are not at the ‘VR and chill’ stage yet.”

But with 21st century tech giants like Google, Apple and Facebook all investing in the space, this is one digital daydream that has a good chance of becoming reality.

Kieran Kent is managing director of Propeller PR.

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