As we’re settling into the new year with 11 months ahead of us, we thought it was time to take a look at the current state of the immersive industry and see what’s coming down the pipe for 2021 – some based upon what is publicly available and we know about, with a healthy dose of informed speculation. No wild rumours here but let’s dig into some areas we think you should be considering, within the realms of technology and opportunities for enterprise and a bit of entertainment in and out-of-home.
Starting with Virtual Reality (VR), leading up to and throughout 2020 we saw a consolidation of platforms as they chose their battles accordingly. Currently, Oculus, or rather Facebook Reality Labs (FBL) as they are now known across a wider gamut of technologies, has dominated the consumer space for VR at home. This has seen the likes of HTC Vive and PICO focus their attentions much more on the enterprise side of business for now. Whilst FBL straddles both camps, with a strong Oculus for Business offering and the ISV Partners directory (of which we are a featured studio within), there are still options for enterprise depending upon how much low-level control is needed over devices by organisations.
Those of you using already or are looking to use Oculus for Business Quest 2 devices will be pleased to know the new customer MDM and ISV Partner dashboards are now live for all to access. We’ve been testing these for the past few months, feeding back to the team and they help remove another layer of faff for deployment. No longer are manual APK direct downloads required for configuration and it provides Business Release Channels for studios to more efficiently configure and control application deployments, updates and customer access. On the consumer side, App Lab has just been launched alongside v25 of the Quest OS, allowing alternative non-Store pathways to releasing experiences.
Moving into 2021, we can expect to see some new devices coming to market for enterprise, and maybe consumer too, to challenge the Quest 1 and 2 dominance perhaps, that will level out the playing field of comparable devices available to deploy. Whilst little public information is available currently, with the strength of the Qualcomm Snapdragon XR2 chipset coming to more devices, we can all guess the capabilities and specifications to a degree. As ever, unit cost and ongoing support requirements will be key decision factors.
At home we can assume that the Sony PlayStation VR currently has the largest install base (last known stats 5M units as of Dec 2019) but now that the device is 4 years old and sales are slowing, with few positive noises coming from Sony around a successor being launched any time soon for PlayStation 5. It is likely that with the strong sales over the holiday period and growing throughout 2021, we can expect Oculus Quest 2 to become the leader sooner rather than later. We still see most adoption occurring through the workplace with many clients and partners rushing out to buy Quests for home after trying them in an enterprise scenario, something that cannot be done with PS VR.
Speaking of adoption, the latest statistics from Steam show 2M+ VR headsets connected monthly to the gaming platform, across HTC Vive, Windows Mixed Reality, Oculus and other hardware devices, or roughly 2% (1 in 50 users are in VR) of all Steam accounts. The curve is growing exponentially so we expect the time to 3M+ will be shorter than 1>2. Similarly encouraging stats have come out of social VR app Rec Room for monthly concurrent VR users, which has hit 1M+ for the first time. This encompasses all VR hardware and platforms currently supported by the title, so covers Oculus, Steam, Viveport and PS VR accordingly. It’s a great sign of things to come as more emphasis and uses for social, online multi-user experiences are backed up with the install userbases to ensure they feel like live communities, not barred wastelands devoid of people.
As we prepare for more Oculus Quest content launches in 2021 (official news coming later in Q1), we are enthused by the positive coverage coming out from other developers of consumer applications around boosts to sales since the launch of Oculus Quest 2 in October 2020 and especially over the holiday period, where it seems lots of people were opening boxes of escapism from under the tree and buying content for the whole family to experience.
It’s best not to ignore tethered PC VR though, even though we are seeing faster enterprise adoption following the releases of “faff-free” standalone headsets in 2019 onwards. The HP Reverb G2 and Varjo VR3 and XR3 devices are providing enterprises with very high quality specifications when they are needed, with a middling to high price point to match, but the latter device showcases the future of what true passthrough optics and mixed reality headsets can provide today, even allowing you to thread a needle. However we do know that FBL will be discontinuing Oculus Rift S early in the year. Whilst this doesn’t mean the end of support for Oculus PC VR, the emphasis is clearly on Quest  and using Oculus Link as an alternative method.
We have to address the fact however that not everyone has been able to make the most of their VR devices since lockdown, with many organisations having to put them under lock and key with the ongoing pandemic and employees working from home, away from the typically classroom / group-based training delivered before. Whilst we have worked hard with a number of clients to enable continued use and improved hygiene processes being put into place, sometimes logistics and locale work against continued operations, for the short-term at least.
One result of this is an uptick of other forms of immersive learning experiences being required to cater to employees working and training from home, where VR isn’t available due to cost of procurement of 10s and 100s of thousands of devices and businesses already constrained financially. We have seen a sharp rise in the requests for our WebXR-based capabilities, to deliver learning content that goes beyond the traditional browser or mobile-based solutions found elsewhere.
As WebXR gains momentum and strength based upon the standards and excellent work being done by the wider community of developers, we see this as a future, continued trend, bridging screen and headset as delivery mechanisms. The bridging hardware could likely be the “all-in-two” devices being touted for release this year and beyond, bringing the lightweight form-factors that will help alleviate some of the main complaints about VR today (bulk weight, battery life) by using 5G, WiFi6 and pocket-powered compute units, otherwise known as your smartphone to you and I.
Over in the AR field, we are seeing adoption of mobile-based Augmented Reality within the home for consumers, looking to enhance their retail experience whilst unable to visit physical shops. Devices are getting more capable for AR with many now sporting rear-facing LiDAR and dedicated cameras to provide much more stable and location-aware tracking and positioning. Headset AR devices are seeing improvements with iterations to the Microsoft HoloLens 2 offering tweaks to improve the colour and contrast of holograms, whilst sector specific variants are appearing for medial and healthcare use.
Dipping our toes into the rumour pool very briefly, recent noises from Magic Leap suggests they are gearing up to reveal their new headset, pencilled in for launch at the end of the year. Whilst they had a difficult 2020 with replacements at the top and a refocus to enterprise, it is always interesting to see where they go from here. We hope the next device is more friendly for glasses-wearers, much like the excellent form-factor of the HoloLens 2, as we know organisations aren’t in a position to customise a device uniquely for each employee and inserts for prescriptions add faff, when instead we should always be aiming to make the technology disappear. Something Apple is always great at…
Shortcomings of AR headsets are still prevalent, with narrower FOV compared to VR and comparatively high costs of units providing a barrier to entry for many organisations. As a result there is a strong argument to invest in and explore the Mixed Reality headsets like Varjo, that now offer seemingly the best of both worlds; high-class VR headsets, the best in terms of resolution and clarity currently available, with high-quality colour stereoscopic cameras for locational awareness and RGB passthrough, at workable resolutions than offered elsewhere only in greyscale. With wide FOV and dual-purpose, it’s worth investigating this area more if it fits your use case, rather than waiting for incremental improvements slowly trickling out across AR headsets, as a short-term option.
On the application and experiences side of things, the greatest driver has been connection, something we are having to finds way to do virtually whilst we await lifting of lockdowns and the ability to meet each other in a physical space safely once again. Many, many applications have grown in popularity over the year allowing users to meet up together for work, learning and play in their own ways. We first wrote about this back at the start of lockdown in March 2020 and there were over 60 applications available then. Whilst some have gained more traction than others, it is clear that those with the ability to do so are able to utilise their immersive devices for a range of use cases around meetings, collaboration, reviews, training or just hanging out and watching a show together. As adoption rates increase and concurrent user numbers improve, we’ll see some clear winners in 2021 onwards for the fight for social spaces, as well as more emphasis on the tools required to keep them enjoyable and harassment-free experiences for all ages.
However burnout is evident amongst many, with too many Zoom video calls (other platforms are available) putting strain on our collective mental health. As a result, alternative options have appeared offering audio-only variants, such as High Fidelity and Clubhouse, focusing on speech quality and spatial audio. This allows groups to breakout for closer, more intimate discussion rather than the mono-channel dominance of the current Zoom speaker or effectively shouting across the whole virtual space some of the weaker platforms enable. As with many rising platforms, there are many thought-leaders using it as another method to promote their egos but if you look carefully, less marketing and self-sales-orientated rooms and hangouts can be found for meaningful discussion worth listening to (or partaking in).
To wrap up we must look at the rest of the hardware ecosystem around immersive technologies. There have been ongoing issues with supply chains and stock since December 2019, hindering uptake and access to popular devices. On the PC VR side, the latest and greatest, newest graphics cards from NVidia and AMD have been hard to come by, suffering the same scalping bot problem as the latest games consoles from Microsoft and Sony, driving up prices on the reseller sites. Oculus Quest was winding down manufacturing and gearing up for the launch of Quest 2 in October and although analysts predict 1M units were shifted in the first 3 months, units were often tricky to get hold of leading up to and after the holidays. For us Brits, Jan 1st saw new challenges with imports into the country from the EU, and for many companies, exports out of the country too. No doubt many of these blips will be ironed out over the coming months but it pays to plan in advance to make sure the hardware you need for a deployment is going to be available when you need it.
Looking head to the rest of 2021 then, there’s a lot to be excited and positive about. With vaccination programmes ramping up and rolling out in many countries, there is a chance we could start to see each other again face-to-face before the end of the year. There are lots of new devices expected to be announced and released this year, especially around the XR2 chipset, bringing competition and alternative options to enterprise to appease many financial, IT and procurement departments.
Many organisations are showing the way forward into the new world of work, expected to be a blend of remote and location-based, utilising these new tools, or even old tools repurposed effectively. We can all do better to help bridge the technology accessibility gaps, ensuring that those who find themselves in a position of needing to, can retrain or crossover to new vocations with the support and effective training to be able to do so.
We will continue to be here to support and enable access to organisations looking to understand and utilise immersive technologies effectively against validated use cases, just get in touch below to start the journey.
If you want to read a deeper dive into VR and AR predictions for 2021, with more charts and images across wider sectors than our braindump above, we recommend checking out Tony Vitillo’s two blog posts, here (VR) and here (AR).
We’re always happy to talk to you about how immersive technologies can engage your employees and customers. If you have a learning objective in mind, or simply want to know more about emerging technologies like VR, AR, or AI, send us a message and we’ll get back to you as soon as we can.