|Age on Sunday - Asian Age - Delhi||Sun, 24 Apr-16||Page# : 33||Circulation : null||Size : 945 sq.cm.|
NEW DELHI 24 APRIL 2016
VIRTUAL REALITY HAS MOVED BEYOND BEING JUST A BUZZWORD TO OFFER THE WORLD AN ADDICTIVE, IMMERSIVE NEW ENVIRONMENT FOR WORK AND PLAY
• AN AND PARTHASARATHY
There was a time when people really didn’t mind the stares of passers-by, as they stuck huge brick-sized contraptions — early mobile phones — to their faces and shouted into them. A decade later the same sorts didn’t mind to be taken for loonies, as they spoke in public, seemingly to themselves, using earpieces with their handsets. This year, get set for another bunch of goofies who will soon appear in public, their heads encased in all-encompassing goggles. Spare your scorn: they’re busy in a virtual world of their own.
Virtual Reality (VR) headsets are now widely available and while the big global offerings this year may come with an asking price of ?50,000 to ?1 lakh, jugaad is at work here too — with Indian innovators already launching VR gear that costs just about ?2,000, even giving away free sets with some smartphone brands. What’s more, young Indian developers have created an ecosystem of 3-D VR content, without which, the most fancy headsets are just a headache rather than a heady experience.
‘VR’, as we know it today, is in fact the Second Coming of the technology and like so many current personal technologies such as smartwatches and gesture controls, it drew inspiration from science fiction. The term VR first popped up in The Judas Mandala, a 1982 novel by Australian Damien Broderick.
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SNRIT or INNOVATION Mumbai-based Meraki - led by an IIT Bombay and filmmaking foursome of Arvind Ghorwal, Sairam Saigiraju, Parth Choksi and Agam Garg - has made a name as a creator of 360-degree videos of sporting events, reality shows, adventure sport etc
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Ten years later, immersive and computer-simulated 3-D environments were created at enormous expense, using special studios, head-mounted LCD displays, special haptic gloves fed by powerful desktop computers.
Remember Michael Douglas as the embattled techie in the film version of Michael Crichton’s thriller Disclosure, entering the VR system of his company to access the records spiked by his vengeful female boss (Demi Moore)? That was 1994, and one of the first visualisations of VR that the lay public got to see.
That same year, the late Dr N. Seshagiri, their Director-General, National Informatics Centre, had set up one of the world’s first VR labs in Delhi — VELNIC or the Virtual Environment Lab of NIC. He made a dramatic entrance in Hyderabad, a few weeks later, at the Indian Computer Congress, wearing a VR headset as he delivered his keynote address, illustrating how all government records could be virtualised and stored for posterity the VR way. Fiction had morphed into fact.
The 1990s brand of VR was too elitist and expensive (the Indian VELNIC system, one of the cheapest in the world, cost the equivalent of $80,000 at the time), to make much of an impact except as a tool for the military to mimic war games. It shrivelled and died, only to see nirvana two decades later, around 2014.
Meanwhile, the geeks had learnt their lesson: technology had to touch people if it was to be meaningful or commercially viable. VR Mark II is doing just that.
In March last year, Facebook spent $2billion to acquire a tiny US company, Oculus VR, that was making a modern virtual reality headset. Oculus had started off small. The product however, was promising... putting its young inventor, 23-year-old Palmer Luckey, 23rd on the list of America’s richest entrepreneurs under 40. The Oculus Rift was finally launched in a few select markets earlier this year but its India availability has not been announced, yet. It is a $599 (?40,000) headset which was widely-praised as the most immersive product in this niche. But till a few weeks ago, the Taiwan-based HTC upstaged it with its own offer-
ing, Vive, at $799 (T56.000). While the Rift, thanks to its Microsoft connection, uses the XBox gamepad as its controller, Vive comes with dedicated motion controllers and a set of base stations.
Both these contenders at the pricey end of VR need a dedicated, graphics-enabled PC to work. Add that cost and they are well above ?1 lakh to use. Sony too has announced its own VR headset which will work with the PlayStation 4 console but the product is not expected until October.
The need to tether the VR system to a computer may yet become a roadblock for such systems -j- unless they can come up with an experience that is literally out of this world. Meanwhile, a disruptor has appeared on the scene — VR headsets that are stripped down in their abilities, harnessing the computing power of a smartphone rather than a PC. Samsung’s Gear VR is a leader in this hew, emerging segment but its use is limited to a small range of Samsung phones (see box for review).
With neither the Oculus Rift nor HTC Vive available here, the phone-based VR segment is exploiting its window of opportunity. Last year, Google launched a very basic do-it-yourself headset called Cardboard — which was just that, a brown box with a couple of lenses stuck in and with rubber bands to hold the phone. You can buy a kit online for about ?500. Companies like OnePlus and last week Tata Motors, have given away such kits for free, in millions to promote their products with a compatible 3-D VR app.
INDIA IN VR
Indian companies are constantly innovating to make VR affordable for the rest of us — in two important ways: Chennai-based Zebronics has launched the Zeb VR and its thick foam nadding and pair of
focus-adjusting lenses make for a comfortable headset that at ?1,600, is as good a fit as global brands costing M0,000 or more. And Zebronics has removed one ‘pain point’: the Zeb VR can be used with any make of smartphone up to 6 inches in size. The problem with all VR sets is what do you do with it. To some extent, Zebronics has solved the problem by making its headset compatible with Google Cardboard apps — and being the big gorilla in this business Google is seeing a growing collection of free 3-D and VR friendly apps available.
Another Indian phonemaker, Karbonn has taken a different route: The company has just launched two phones — the 5-inch dual SIM 4G Quattro L52 (?8,790) and the
6-inch 3G Karbonn Max 6 (?7,496) with VR software bundled and pre-installed — and the VR headset thrown in for free. At one stroke, these two players have suddenly made India arguably the first and biggest testing ground anywhere in the world for consumer-centric VR. But we’re not alone.
A few days ago, the Chinese company Le Eco (formerly LETV) unveiled a new VR headset at a launch event in Beijing and the product — is expected to be available in India very soon.
For Indians taking the first tentative steps towards trying out the future, by investing in a VR headset or a VR-paired phone, 2016 seems to be making sure their investment will not be in vain — the critical mass of content for Virtual Reality is being created right here
The first thought that comes to mind while using the Samsung Gear VR headset is how comfortable it is to wear after the ‘squeezing’ experienced with DIY offerings such as Cardboard. Now we know where the money goes! For gaming and navigation it comes with a sensor pad on the right side, which was not too sensitive to recognise the finger movements quickly. Compared to PC-linked VR headsets, the Gear VR
offers an advantage of uwired movement; for 360-degree videos. The visuals for both 2-D and 3-D content were neat when we tried it with the Samsung Galaxy S7. There is a zoom control on the top of the set The Gear VR is basically meant for you to watch videos and play games with compatible Samsung smartphones, which we feel is a bit restrictive. So the Samsung Gear VR is ideal for select Samsung phone owners, who just want to get the look and feel of a virtual reality device for the asking price of ?8,200.