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 Rs 50,000 to Rs 1 lakh, jugaad is at work here too — with Indian innovators already launching VR gear that costs just about Rs 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.
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, then 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 (Rs 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 offering, Vive, at $799 (Rs 56,000). 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 Rs 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 — 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 new, 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 Rs 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 padding and pair of focus-adjusting lenses make for a comfortable headset that at Rs 1,600, is as good a fit as global brands costing Rs 10,000 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 (Rs 8,790) and the 6-inch 3G Karbonn Max 6 (Rs 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.
Plugging the software gap
In a parallel development, Indian software companies have seized the opportunity to fill the yawning gap that today’s VR equipment buyers face. It’s great if you are a video game freak because virtually every big single-player shooter or multiplayer video game has come out with VR versions that take the player even deeper into the racetrack or battlefield... or what ever. But what’s in it for those who seek a more meaningful experience?
Imaginate, a VR company incubated at the International Institute of Information Technology, Hyderabad, and founded four years ago by Hemant Satyanarayana, has launched a series of innovative applications for VR hardware. Through these technologies, you can even take a tour of tombs and browse through the latest in fashion.
For example, there’s Dressy, a virtual online fitting room where from the comfort of your home you can try out a variety of dresses and sizes before ordering them online. ShootAR is a simulator constructed for the Indian Army in the hopes of training soldiers in marksmanship and anti-terror operations. HeritageAR is an initiative adopted by the Aga Khan Foundation and is available as an app at the Google Play Store — where one can virtually tour Hyderabad’s Quli Qutb Shahi Tombs. The company was a hit at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona this year with its latest VR product, the Connected Car virtual tour.
Another VR content creator, is Mumbai-based Meraki — led by an IIT Bombay and filmmaking foursome of Arvind Ghorwal, Sairam Saigiraju, Parth Choksi and Agam Garg, which has made a name as a creator of 360-degree videos of sporting events, reality shows, adventure sport etc.
Additionally, a few months ago, three undergraduates from BITS Pilani Goa — Shubham Mishra, Vrushali Prasade and Harikrishna Valiyath, decided to drop out and out-do Oculus at their own game. They started a company — Absentia — in Bengaluru and created a VR headset they called Tesseract which offers 360-degree military-grade head tracking and the ability to watch any game or movie in 3-D. Like so many Indian entrants in this arena, the headset works with all current games and movies. The company has just landed Rs 1.2 crore in funding and the Tesseract is currently offered for pre-booking at Rs 20,000.
Chennai-based Ingage, founded by ex Intel and AMD executive Vijay Karunakaran, treads the thin line that separates Virtual Reality from Augmented Reality. While VR takes the user into an entirely artificial environment, AR integrates new digital information into the user’s environment, in real time. The Google Glass — another pricey invention that was shunned by lay users is a prime example. InGage has launched a multi-brand Augmented Reality Mobile App called ‘InGage’ on Apple itunes and Android Google Play designed for brands across a broad spectrum of industries to engage with their customers in an interactive manner. The company has partnered with educational publishers to enhance class 2 to class 8 lessons with 3-D augmented imagery, even as Indian talent-fueled Blippar, the world’s biggest visual search tool has joined Amar Chitra Katha to let readers interact with famous characters — including Suppandi!
But the one industry that will embrace VR most zealously is tourism — and one only needs to look at sites such as IndiaVRTours.com, featuring fantastic 360-degree views of India’s top tourist attractions, to appreciate the fact that the possibilities of enhancing visitor experience are limitless.
So 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, using a mix of education and entertainment. The future has arrived!
Samsung Gear VR
V.Sudhakshina tries out the Samsung Gear VR and HTC’s Vive
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 Rs 8,200.
The HTC VIVE
Months ahead of its formal launch in India, HTC organised a roadshow of its Vive VR solution. Unlike the Gear VR, HTC Vive isn’t meant for smartphones. It is a PC-based VR device with arguably the best experience currently on offer.
Gaming with the HTC Vive gives you an immersive experience. You get to roam around the room freely and also make gestures using the hand controllers. We felt that the controllers were highly responsive and interactive. There’s also the base stations that sense your movement and create a mesh-like visual if you get close to the wall, avoiding bumps. The 3D video playback was amazing as we got totally immersed in an ocean (we were shown a video of underwater life). The images were so real that we felt slightly dizzy after removing the device.
The HTC Vive headset comes with dual hand-operated controllers and two base stations to mark the boundaries of the ‘experience area’. It is priced at $799 (Rs 56,000). But one has to factor in another $1,000 (about Rs 70,000) atleast for a compatible PC.
VR in the OR
An operation on a patient with colon cancer was performed last week at the Royal London Hospital — the first ever to be broadcast live using two 360-degree VR cameras. Medical students in the gallery as well as hundreds of professionals outside watched every detail of the surgery from multiple angles on cheap Cardboard-type VR head sets strapped to their mobile phones using a downloaded app.
The surgery was led by Bangladesh-born Dr Shafi Ahmed, who runs a healthcare company called Medical Realities which specialises in VR and AR-based medical training. Their solution, The Virtual Surgeon, lets professional viewers see surgeries through the eye of the surgeon and works with Oculus Rift, Samsung Gear VR — and the cheapest cardboard VR set.
Dr Ahmed, a colonic and laparoscopic specialist, believes VR will revolutionise and soon become an inseparable part of medical education in the years to come.