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Taking virtual reality to the next level

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12 January 2015

2015 trends: After years of false starts, virtual reality looks set for a bigger stage.

Asked recently about the technology he is most excited about, 21st Century Fox boss James Murdoch didn’t even hesitate before replying: virtual reality.

There have been years of false starts for the technology, which has been held back for several reasons – chief among them that it made users feel nauseous and that the environments weren’t real enough. But these problems are slowly being overcome as tech companies invest huge sums in virtual reality.

The nascent technology was thrust into the limelight last year when VR pioneer Oculus Rift was acquired by Facebook for an eye-watering $2bn. Facebook has been investing heavily in the Rift headset, which is expected to start selling to consumers this year.

Sony is seen as a key rival to Oculus Rift in the VR arena. Last year it unveiled its Project Morpheus prototype headset, but has not specified a price or release date for the device. There’s also great excitement around new VR outfit Magic Leap, which has secured $542m in funding from investors including Google.

Oculus Rift, Project Morpheus and Magic Leap’s technology are linked to computers or gaming platforms to create powerful VR experiences.

Other players have gone down the cheaper mobile route – which allows content to be played via VR apps on phones which can be slotted into cheap, specially designed headsets.

Google has launched Google Cardboard. Users download Google’s Cardboard VR app onto their phone, build their own headset with cardboard, and start watching.   Samsung has produced a mobile phone based headset, Gear VR, which went on sale to developers last month for $199. And lens manufacturer Carl Zeiss is already selling the VR One, a smartphone-enabled mobile headset that is selling to developers for $99.

As well as gaming, VR presents  plenty of possibilities for film and TV. This month’s Sundance Film Festival will be awash with VR installations, showcasing the technology to filmmakers. Sky plans to conduct VR trials on up to 15 shows, following investment in VR start up Jaunt.

British companies Atlantic Productions and Framestore have already pushed into the VR space. Indie producer Atlantic is pioneering VR content with a range of manufacturers and developers. They include two David Attenborough narrated projects, about the ancient seas (pictured above) and the world of insects, as well as projects about the ancient pyramids and life in the oceans. “2015 is going to be a very exciting year. A lot of projects are going to come out and I think people are going to be very excited by them,” says Atlantic CEO Anthony Geffen.

Framestore, meanwhile, launched a VR studio last year. It has produced several VR projects including one for Paramount Pictures based on the film Interstellar.and a VR ad for Volvo.

Relatively affordable devices that can deliver immersive experiences to consumers means that VR will be far more accessible than 3D. “Within two years the tech will be so far advanced and costs so low that millions of people will be able to have these experiences,” says Phil Harper, head of digital at Atlantic Productions.

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