Virtual Reality (VR) has been the ‘next big thing’ for a while now, without ever really reaching critical consumer mass. But perhaps 2019 was the turning point. Since Facebook shipped the first Oculus headsets back in 2014, VR tech has gone from quirky novelty to the edge of mainstream success. In fact, some people reckon the VR industry is now entering the final stage of the Gartner Hype Cycle: high-growth adoption. If that’s true, expect to see a lot more Oculus Quest headsets in 2020.
All the pieces are in place for VR to boom next year. The average headset price point has dipped below $400, untethered performance has reached acceptable levels, and new content (including AAA gaming titles) are just around the corner. What will the future hold for VR technology? Here are our top predictions for VR in 2020.
1. Mainstream VR gaming
Gaming was always seen as VR’s commercial Holy Grail. And although the global market reached $10.3 billion in 2018 (and is expected to climb), VR gaming hasn’t really been the disruptive global force everyone predicted back in 2014. Partly this was down to developer neglect, which is why Valve’s flagship Half-Life game (Half-Life: Alyx) is so exciting. The trailer received more than 10 million views across YouTube and Twitter in its first 24 hours, and critics are already predicting that Alyx might just be the title to drag VR tech into the gaming mainstream. It launches in March 2020.
2. 8K virtual reality
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why VR has stuttered and stumbled over the last few years, but part of the problem was tech lag. VR hardware and VR ambition haven’t exactly kept pace with one another. There were baked-in limits to resolution, frame rate and latency, which really hurt the overall user experience. But that might be about to change in 2020, with rumours of Apple’s mysterious T288 headset. It’s an untethered AR and VR-capable headset with 8K display in both eyes – nearly double the resolution of its competitors. It’s the sort of evolutionary leap that could resuscitate VR’s performance credibility.
3. The launch of 5G
5G is already popping up in certain parts of the UK, but the big roll-out will begin next year. This is the development that AR and VR communities have been waiting for. If VR tech is going to evolve, it needs faster, cheaper and more stable networks, with consistently lower latency. Hardware giants like Qualcomm are gearing up for the transition, with new 5G integrated chip platforms (check out the Snapdragon XR2 for more information). These will likely be the processors driving Oculus Quest and Hololens into the future, rendering graphics in the cloud and reducing the load on standalone headsets. The future is wireless, and it’s very very fast.
4. AI ‘Computer Vision’
Next year we should see VR developers really lean into AI and machine learning, building cognitive functionality into all sorts of apps. So-called ‘Computer Vision’ – AI-driven technology that allows computers to ‘see’ through cameras – has already revolutionised Augmented Reality, with Snapchat and Instagram filters being the most consumer-facing examples. But the applications are potentially endless. Gamers could face smarter AI-driven opponents, medical technology (like Google’s machine learning microscope) might disrupt the world of diagnostics, and financial services firms could use smart VR to beef up their risk management and cyber security.
5. Haptic technology
Haptic is really a fancy word for touch. Technically your vibrating phone is haptic feedback. But what if you could incorporate more sophisticated haptic technology with existing VR headsets? You wouldn’t just be able to see the world; you’d be able to feel it. Haptic VR suits are already here, drawing inputs from motion capture and biometrics to create realistic haptic feedback, but widespread adoption is probably still a little way off. Obviously this sort of tech could revolutionise VR gaming, but haptic gloves (like HaptX) could – in theory – be used for everything from virtual sculpture to robotic surgery.
6. VR social platforms
When Facebook acquired Oculus, the expectation was that VR tech and social networks would become almost one and the same thing. But Facebook Rooms and Facebook Spaces – the company’s first wide-eyed ventures into VR social networking – didn’t really catch on (in fact the Oculus Spaces beta was quietly shut down in October 2019). But from the ashes of Facebook Spaces comes the next iteration in VR networking: Facebook Horizon. It’s an expansive VR sandbox, an entire digital universe, where people will literally ‘hang out’ in virtual reality. The closed beta launches in 2020. Watch this space.