MWC: Virtual Reality gets big Facebook push in Barcelona

Browsing among the crowded booths and enthusiastic attendees of Mobile World Congress this week, the world’s biggest showcase of mobile phone technologies, the overwhelming presence of one particular product is blatantly obvious – Virtual Reality (VR), writes Tom Wilson from Barcelona.

MWC: Virtual Reality gets big Facebook push in Barcelona

LG 360 VR headset and camera

The floors of the MWC exhibition tend to provide a good indication of the years key consumer products.

Mobile World Congress: Your Electronics Weekly guide »

Last year, it was the year of the smartwatch with big players such as Huawei and LG both introducing high end products to coincide with the start of the show, and to give themselves a generous head start on the launch of the Apple Watch, which went on sale that April. This year the product of the moment is VR and, more specifically perhaps, 360 degree video capture and playback.

There was no better indicator as to the role VR would play than Samsung’s highly anticipated product launch of the Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge on Sunday evening, which heavily relied on a ‘virtual’ environment to deliver the crucial reveal of the new handsets.

If that wasn’t impressive enough, and impressive it was despite being a little over the top, the arrival of Facebook CEO, Mark Zuckerberg towards the end of the presentation to announce a collaboration between the social network giant and Samsung seemed to cement the presence of VR for the remainder of the week.

Mark Zuckerberg’s thoughts on VR were made clear in a keynote speech delivered on Monday evening, when he cited 360 degree video as the ‘social platform’ of the future. He reminded the audience of his own personal reason for believing in VR, saying that he wanted to capture ‘whole scenes’ of emotionally resonating information, such as his daughter’s first steps, and not just a ‘snapshot’ of the moment.

Facebook acquired the virtual reality developer Oculus VR in 2014 and who are readying the launch of their first product, the Oculus Rift, in July this year. And other mobile technology companies must feel the same way as the Facebook CEO. LG, HTC and Microsoft have all adopted VR as the key platform for the future.

Like Samsung, LG have also introduced a 360 degree video camera and companion VR headset to accompany the launch of their flagship smartphone, the LG G5, the first smartphone to feature interchangeable modular components.

HTC have also been present offering cinematic demonstrations of their VIVE VR headset, a partnership with online video games developer Valve, which hopes to be commercially available from April this year.

It wouldn’t be right to talk about VR headsets without mentioning Microsoft’s Hololens, a demo version of which was on display at their booth. The Hololens, which has seen continual interest since its introduction in January last year, is billed as ‘augmented reality’ rather than VR as it relies on interaction with holographic elements placed in the environment around the user. Microsoft is currently offering the Hololens on pre-order for developers and hopes to ship to customers in the first quarter of 2016.

However, despite this surge of interest in VR products and technology it is still far from becoming a constant presence in many peoples daily lives. Naturally, the price of the more capable technology is still prohibitively expensive for anyone except the die hard early adopters, with the Oculus Rift starting at $599 and the VIVE VR a whopping $799 .

Samsung Gear VR and Gear 360

Samsung Gear VR and Gear 360

Samsung’s Gear VR and LG’s 360 VR are aimed to be much more accessible, with Samsung even offering to bundle a free Gear VR with every Samsung Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge pre-order until early March (this offer does apply only in selected markets however).

This accessibility comes at a price however, as neither the Gear VR or 360 VR offer anywhere near as an immersive VR experience as the more capable Oculus Rift and VIVE VR.

The Gear VR should be praised for being a well built product, which is comfortable to wear for short periods, perfect maybe for Zuckerberg’s idea of sharing important 360 degree scenes for all to experience, however the image resolution is poor, due to the lenses used to provide the immersive video, and must be dramatically improved to offer a great VR experience.

Perhaps the most fundamental drawback to Zuckerberg’s long time vision of sharing 360 degree video is whether the mobile networks, already facing capacity challenge, can deal with a massive increase in video data downloads. The large size of a full 360 degree video, perhaps shot in ultra high 4K resolution, would guzzle up an appreciable amount of bandwidth rendering the current 4G networks insufficient for the task.

With 5G networks still many years from becoming common in the market place, it seems the sharing of VR content via mobile is still a distant reality and Mark Zuckerberg may have to wait until perhaps his young daughter’s first day at school, or perhaps even her first moment riding a bike, to truly realise his dream of capturing and sharing the moment in 360 degree video.

It is very difficult to predict whether VR will become the dominant medium of social interaction in years to come, however the technology is very much the photogenic darling of the moment at MWC 2016 and looks like it is hear to stay for the immediate future.

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