As the demand for virtual reality increases, our understanding of how this once unfathomable technology is going to be utilized over the coming years is also growing. Contrary to the general consensus just half a decade ago, it’s now evident that applied VR across education and training is rapidly taking precedence over VR tech in entertainment and gaming. Accordingly, it’s accounting for increasing shares of the market, in large part thanks to COVID-19’s acceleration of remote working.
Virtual reality applications in education, automotive, healthcare, and aerospace & defence are proving to be just as significant to giants like Oculus and HTC when it comes to investing in the market. And it seems hardware sales are increasingly dependent on the success of VR software.
By 2022, it’s predicted that the software market will be worth a whopping $6.4 billion – more than double its current size. Just who are the software producers ballooning this burgeoning market?
One startup making noise in software production is ENGAGE, a platform aimed at educators, trainers, and corporate teams. A product of Dublin-based Immersive VR Education, the platform has already caught the eye of HTC, who held their VIVE Ecosystem conference on it earlier this year.
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The choice to host the conference virtually was the perfect opportunity for HTC to show off the benefits of conferencing in virtual space. The decision also implies the industry’s intention to successfully marry the big-boy hardware producers with third-party software startups.
HTC’s Vive virtual reality system is a key-player in VR hardware, accounting for approximately 13.3% of sales in 2019. Though Sony’s staggering 36.7% share continues to cast a shadow over its competition, HTC has seen significant growth over the years, eclipsing Microsoft’s sales by an estimated 10% in 2019. HTC’s support, then, likely means good things to come for ENGAGE.
ENGAGE facilitates live meetings, events and training with a number of features that make it beneficial over traditional conferencing. For instance, videos and presentations can be streamed live within the platform, while documents and multimedia can be shared via Google Drive, OneDrive, Dropbox, and YouTube.
Quizzes, tests and forms can be created, shared, and completed on the platform, making it equally apt at functioning as a virtual classroom as it is a conference hall.
In a range of different virtual locations, typical classroom settings find themselves imbued with inspiration and interactivity. The IFX library, complete with over a thousand 3D models, special effects and audio effects, brings life to what might otherwise risk being excessively dull.
Whether or not these end up as disused contrivances or invaluable new means of delivering educational material likely depends on the educator in question. HTC certainly wasn’t afraid of flexing the library, opening the VIVE Ecosystem conference with military jets crisscrossing the virtual stage.
As with any vertical, growth comes hand-in-hand with increased competition.
While HTC has symbolically laid claim to ENGAGE, Microsoft snatched up like-minded startup AltspaceVR in an official acquisition back in 2017, no doubt anticipating the following decade’s forecast of astronomical growth.
With a more charming visual style, AltspaceVR deemphasizes ENGAGE’s focus on conferencing and education for a more generalized approach to virtual space. Users can host meetups, shows or classes. Character designs contrast ENGAGE’s realistic, photo-based avatars with a cuter aesthetic that recalls Xbox’s Avatars, albeit in a cell-shaded style that makes them easier on the eye.
Glue lands somewhere between AltspaceVR and ENGAGE, as evidenced by its visual-style. Backed by high-flying investors like Reaktor and Maki.VC, the Helsinki-based startup differentiates itself by marketing its platform solely towards business professionals looking to make use of collaborative work spaces. Hence, the toolkit provided foregoes the thrills of ENGAGE for more practical fare, like post-it notes, whiteboards, and freehand drawing.
“We’re enabling a more sustainable way of doing business with less corporate travel,” claims CEO Jussi Havu. “Glue is helping companies to save on their travel spend, reduce harmful emissions and lessen the toll on employees and their families.”
With the likes of Sony, Facebook, and HTC devoted to rolling out hardware, tech giants across the board clearly recognize the significance of software in securing sales for new VR headsets.
While it’s hard to assess the real impact the pandemic had on VR in education, training and conferences because of a lack of statistics, the task is a little easier when it comes to gaming. Steam’s hardware survey revealed a surge in VR users following the release of Half-Life: Alyx back in March, when a record one million additional VR headsets were logged.
But the growth spurt ended almost as quickly as it began. In July, 1.93% of users had registered VR headsets. As of October, that figure sits at 1.76%. While the surge, no doubt provoked by releasing VR’s first - and, so far, only - hotly anticipated title at the midst of lockdown, was a step in the right direction, the instability of the figures proves that the coronavirus pandemic wasn’t enough to trigger the iPhoneification of VR.
What the figures do suggest, however, is that there will only be an audience for hardware when there is solid IP - not the other way round.
Since so many tech giants have already bought up software development teams entirely or otherwise invested, they seem emboldened to push VR technology as the future of conferencing, education and training just as much as it is the future of gaming and entertainment.
For now, we’ll have to wait and see whether the success of future virtual reality applications from providers like ENGAGE, AltSpaceVR, and Glue will be the catalyst the industry needs.