Will 2016 Be “The Year” For Virtual Reality?

The world’s tech prognosticators are predicting a huge year for virtual reality in 2016. With an incredible $4 billion dollars of funding in the space since 2010, startups and researchers alike are racing to bring their latest innovations to market this year.

With that, there have been an increasing number of announcements from companies that are ready to release new hardware, like the HTC VIVE due out in April, with impressive specs at affordable price points. So affordable that Samsung’s $100 Gear VR headset was sold out at many retailers during last year’s holiday season.

Even more, heavyweights have been acquiring VR startups and putting together secret teams, like Apple recently hiring legendary Virginia Tech professor Doug Bowman.

However, not everyone is joining the VR party. There have been some contrarian views voiced recently, such as Digg co-founder Kevin Rose, who says the technology has a chicken or the egg problem. Rose still thinks the technology needs time to mature, saying, “Innovative, sure, but in the drawer after the novelty wears off.”

VR’s Biggest Impact May Be In Training

While most of the press for VR focuses on hardware specs and immersive gaming environments, VR’s unheralded innovation this year may be in training students and employees — even soldiers in the military. As Science Clarified explains, “Doctors, ranging from future physicians still in medical school to experienced surgeons, also increasingly do part of their learning in virtual reality.” With VR technology, students and doctors alike can be trained to do procedures in fully immersive virtual environments, which allows them to repeat them as many times as is wanted. Virtual labs give students the ability to test a hypothesis, analyze data, and practice problem solving in real time, with minimal resources used.

At Labster, we have been collaborating with Guido Makransky, an Associate Professor at the University of Southern Denmark Institute of Technology, on studies testing the efficacy of Immersive VR with regular desktop VR. Makransky says of the research, “Our preliminary experimental results where we compare Immersive VR (with goggles) to desktop VR suggest that VR has the potential to play a very big role in education.”

“The biggest difference between the two platforms is that immersive VR leads to a significantly higher level of presence (the psychological feeling that students are in the lab) which has positive effects on increased motivation and perceived learning. It is too early to say if the differences between the two platforms are simply due to the novelty of immersive VR, but preliminary results are quite encouraging,” Makransky said.

Other exciting VR research is being done in England by the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory at the Ministry of Defence, where they are investigating ways that VR can help make the British military more effective in the field. This is building on research published in 2008 that showed soldiers are more prepared for combat when VR and real world training are used in combination.

VR Hardware Poised for A Breakout

From mobile phones, to game consoles, VR hardware could disrupt entire industries in the next few years. As Peter Csathy of Variety says, “We all know about Oculus Rift after Facebook acquired it for $2 billion in 2014. But, Oculus is not alone — far from it. Virtually all major consumer electronics giants will soon flood the market with millions of premium VR headsets at price points that will drive adoption akin to the early days of game consoles.”

Travis Jakel, analyst at Piper Jaffray, forecasts that 2016 will see sales of 12.2 million VR headsets. With numbers like this, it’s easy to see why VR could make such a big impact.

Labster has big plans for 2016 as well, and will start testing and research on Virtual reality labs based on a recent 4m USD grant in collaboration with among others MIT, Samsung and the Biotech company Biogen.

It’s a very exciting time to be a part of the growing world of VR — a technology with the potential to change the way we learn and interact with the real world. However, for the skeptical crowd, it remains to be seen if VR hardware and software will be able to support each other initially, as Rose suggests. But with funding support from the investor class, promising hardware sales, and exciting software in the pipeline, it looks as though 2016 will be the year we find out if VR can transform the way we interact with the world.