After years of hype, we are going to hear a lot about virtual reality and its more catch-all moniker ‘immersive entertainment’ in 2016. That’s because a series of major technology players will be following up the recent launch of Samsung’s Gear VR gaming headset with VR headsets of their own.

Facebook’s Oculus Rift and HTC’s Vive are both heading for Q1 consumer releases, Sony has is own headset PlayStation VR for the PS4 gaming console lined up while Google is offering an entry level Cardboard viewer and augmented reality glasses Magic Leap, to rival Microsoft’s HoloLens.

In its recent report on the fast-growing VR market, Futuresource Consulting concluded that 2016 is set to be a big year for VR as heavy investment from some of the world’s biggest tech companies bears fruit in the form of both VR technology and content.

Adam Cox, senior analyst at Futuresource Consulting, says: “Some of the world’s largest and most prominent companies like Google, Microsoft, Facebook and Sony have a great deal of faith in the new technology and are putting in place the ecosystems required to pave the way for a successful introduction to the mass market. With the backing of such prominent companies, its outlook is exciting.”

One of the big 2016 growth markets will be mobile, with many of the newly released headsets aimed at offering VR experiences over smartphones, which all have large amounts of processing power and storage. “The processing power inside people’s pockets in their phones is the big underutilised technology. My new phone has more resolution than my TV at home,” says Phil Harper, creative director at specialist VR producer Alchemy, a subsidiary of Atlantic Productions.

2016 will see many companies opening specialist VR production arms to make the most of the VR boom – such as Mativision which opened up in London in November.

Simon Craddock, MD at hire company Onsight, which offers high end production services to the emerging VR content industry, including camera rigs based around the Red Epic Dragon and GoPro, observes: “The thing that often holds things back with new video technology is that you have to buy into the display device. The big advantage with mobile VR is that you already have it and it gets an upgrade every year.”

But as Phil Harper adds, demand for VR will only be stimulated by compelling VR content. ‘The demand won’t arrive by itself – there has to be something happening to make viewers go to their headsets.”

2016 will certainly be notable for an explosion in the market for VR content on mobile. At the lower end are a series of Google VR apps designed for the Cardboard viewer such as Expeditions – a VR teaching aid allowing teachers to take their classes to places they would be unlikely to visit on a school trip – like space or the Great Barrier Reef – and InMind, an exploration of the human brain which sits alongside a host of other VR apps and games on GooglePlay.

At the other end of the scale will be the release of big experiences for tethered VR devices such as Gear VR, Oculus Rift and PlayStation VR (formerly Morpheus) which will offer higher quality immersive experiences on powerful consoles such as PS4 – many of which are VR versions of existing console games.

Alchemy’s latest Attenborough project Reef – the follow up to First Life – will be released next year, with Harper tipping Robinson – the Journey on PS4 as one of the strongest looking VR launches.
In terms of the genres most likely to take to virtual reality it’s a case of the usual suspects. Says Craddock: “It’s broadly the same as those who were most interested in HD, 3D and 4K – genres such as natural history, sport and music in particular.”

We will also hear a lot more from the more established broadcasters on VR next year, with Discovery launching a series of VR environmental films under the Racing Extinction banner, while Sky is now trialling VR news reports. It has also partnered with cinema VR tech company Jaunt and is testing VR on Sky productions Critical, Penny Dreadful, Trollied, Fortitude and Got to Dance, as well as boxing and motor racing. The BBC has a £100k fund for VR ideas and is conducting trials of its own at the NHU and in news.

As Futuresource’s Adam Cox points out, VR is still firmly in the innovation phase with everything to play for.

But already it’s clear that for some the kind of immersion offered by VR isn’t the endgame in terms of immersive experiences. For Ncam CEO Nic Hatch augmented reality provides the ultimate with devices such as Google’s Magic Leap and Microsoft’s HoloLens placing virtual content into the real world. The aim is to make that virtual experience so realistic that the human brain can’t tell the difference between what’s real and what isn’t.

“If vfx is bad it can ruin the storyline and the suspension of disbelief in the mind of the viewer is harder to achieve. We are trying to get the virtual into reality not reality into the virtual. To provide a seamless match so you can’t tell the difference – that’s our goal.” ­

Google Cardboard headsets are a cheap entry level device designed to stimulate interest in VR and VR applications. Reputedly designed by two Google engineers during the company’s “20% time off” it is built from simple, low cost components. People can get assembly instructions online and make it themselves or buy ready-made third party Cardboard viewers – but there is no official vendor. It works by fastening your smartphone into the back of the device and viewing VR apps.

Gear VR
Samsung Gear VR is a mobile VR headset developed in collaboration with Oculus VR, the VR designers behind the more expensive Oculus Rift headset, which is heading for a 2016 release. The benefits of Gear VR is that it is an affordable yet decent spec headset which offers an immersive experience. The drawback is that it is only compatible with the Samsung Galaxy S6, S6 Edge, S6 Edge+, and Note 
5 devices. Gear VR is not yet available in the UK.

David Wood

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