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Facebook will bring virtual reality to actuality

Thousands at the MWC Samsung Unpacked event donned Samsung Gear VR devices to experience the ceremony in virtual reality. (Photograph by Reuters)

Thousands at the MWC Samsung Unpacked event donned Samsung Gear VR devices to experience the ceremony in virtual reality. (Photograph by Reuters)

This week, Facebook unveiled ambitious plans to move virtual reality (VR) from novelty to mainstream. These include improving the viewing experience and building network infrastructure that will support the content.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg stole the show at a Samsung event during Mobile World Congress (MWC) in Barcelona this week. He walked through the crowd completely unnoticed by the 5 000 people in attendance. They were all wearing VR headsets as part of Samsung's flagship smartphone unveiling.

The CEO took to the stage, to the attendees' surprise, to talk about the future of VR and how the social network hopes to make it an everyday reality.

"The huge emphasis being placed on VR by Facebook means it will begin to enter the public consciousness. The challenge is to push pricing down fast enough to take advantage of the hype," says Arthur Goldstuck, MD of World Wide Worx.

Reuters reports VR is on course to become a $1 billion global business, with market analyst firm CCS Insight predicting 13 million VR headsets will have been sold by the end of this year, a figure projected to rise to 97 million by 2020.

Dynamic streaming

"The headsets are not going mainstream yet due to high price and underwhelming performance," says Goldstuck.

Facebook addresses the poor performance of VR headsets with its announcement that it will incorporate its 360 Video dynamic streaming technology with Samsung's Gear VR.

"It's a more efficient way of delivering 360[-degree] videos, showing only the pixels you're actually looking at in the highest quality, instead of delivering the entire 360 video in high resolution," explained Facebook in a blog post.

"To make this work, we create dozens of variants for every 360 video that gets uploaded to Facebook, each tailored to a specific viewing angle, and then as you watch the video, we rapidly adjust which variant we display based on where you're looking. By doing this, we've quadrupled the resolution quality of 360 streaming video in VR by reducing the amount of required network bandwidth by 4x − so videos look clearer and play faster."

The company says it has created a Social VR team to focus on exploring the future of social interaction in VR.

"Our work in VR is still early, and there are a lot of hardware and software challenges that we still need to solve. But we're encouraged by our progress to date, and we're excited to continue building VR technology that gives people new ways to connect and share," said Facebook.

Faster networks

For VR to become a possibility, integrated into everyday life and social media networks, a fast and reliable network is required.

In a separate event at MWC, Zuckerberg announced the Telecom Infra Project, a partnership between the social network and telecom companies. The project aims to develop new technologies that will reduce the cost of building mobile networks globally, and falls under Facebook's Internet.org.

"We hope the cost savings from greater efficiency will be passed along to people by making their data plans cheaper and making it affordable for operators to extend their networks to places it hasn't traditionally been cost-effective to do so," said Zuckerberg on his Facebook page.

"Facebook is working with more than 30 partners, including Deutsche Telekom, Intel, Nokia and SK Telecom, to develop new technologies that can help connect people faster and more efficiently, from infrastructure that can help connect the unconnected in developing countries, to ways to accelerate the growth of 5G networks -- which will deliver richer forms of content like video and VR."

However, Goldstuck says: "The real problem is that it's not something one would use in everyday activities for the near future. It's geared to entertainment, leisure and travel, with very specific use cases for maintenance and demonstration type activities. It's not something you would carry around with you. At least, not in its current format, usage or utility."

Everybody wants in

Hardware manufacturers do not want to be left behind when VR becomes commonplace. A number of VR products were launched this week at MWC, from lighter and cheaper headsets to tools for capturing VR content.

Nokia, Samsung and LG revealed cameras capable of capturing video and pictures for VR headsets. Nokia showcased the Ozo VR camera, aimed at professional content creators. Samsung and LG announced VR cameras for the consumer market: the Samsung Gear 360 and LG 360 Cam.

LG also released the 360 VR Goggle, a VR headset that does not require a smartphone to be slotted in the front. Instead, it has a dedicated cable that needs to be connected to LG's new flagship smartphone, the G5.

HTC also announced the consumer edition of its Vive VR system will be available for pre-order worldwide next Monday.

In an attempt to bring more VR headsets to more people, Samsung said every pre-order of the new Samsung Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge will ship with a free Gear VR. This offer extends to SA.

"An explosion in 360-degree viewing products, imagery and apps will not translate, at this stage, into a VR revolution," says Goldstuck, who believes the cameras, capable of capturing VR content, will drive the medium to mainstream − more so than the headsets.

"It will feel like the wearable non-revolution all over again, where the growth of health and activity monitoring has been wrongly conflated with the growth of wearables," says Goldstuck.


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