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Comment: Mobile World Congress teases the next steps for virtual reality

The theme at Mobile World Congress this year was ‘The Next Element’ and, from the perspective of someone working in the field of virtual reality, this year’s show really lived up to its promise. While mobile is the name of the game, virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) were the topics on everyone’s tongues, with a vast array of products on show to back up the hype.

After making its formal introduction last year, VR really stole the show this time round, with jaw-dropping on-stand demos from the likes of Nokia, Peugeot, and Samsung – to name but a few. The experiences and applications varied greatly – from very niche solutions targeted at specific use cases, like patient care, to something that pretty much resembled a roller-coaster at the Samsung stand.

What is clear, however, is VR development has come a long way in a year. Gone were the static, 2D worlds, clunky headsets and multitude of wires – and taking their place were true 360-degree immersive universes just waiting to be explored. Each product was accompanied by excitable conversations about the potential of rapidly advancing technology, and the real world applications of this exciting area of innovation.

Technical breakthroughs in VR

On the technical side, of particular interest to me were products which broke through the concept that VR isolates the user because it is an inherently individual experience. Master of Shapes, for example, was demoing a product with HTC that enables multiplayer VR. Using tracking technology, friends and family can join the experience of the user using the headset through their phones. While this was demoed as a game, the concept of a collaborative VR experience very clearly has multiple applications.

Another potential technical breakthrough I was lucky enough to try out first hand, was Leap Motion’s mobile VR platform. VR interaction should be almost invisible, and Leap Motion were already leading the way in this regard with their hand-tracking technology, which removes the need for wires and remotes. Now – by combining hand tracking with an untethered headset design focused around the mobile phone – a completely unobtrusive VR experience feels very close.

Finally, what people often forget about VR is that it is not just about what you see, it’s also what you hear. On these lines, I was excited by the Waves NX demo – headphones that convert 5.1 or stereo sound into 3D audio to create a more life-like experience. As much as visuals can create an immersive experience, improved sound will go a long way to creating a sense of presence.

Widening applications of VR

While these technical advances are exciting, it was equally interesting to see how VR is being applied in practice beyond the entertainment world, in a range of industries including healthcare, education and retail.

For example, of particular interest to my work and research were examples of the use of VR in patient care. Sharecare was showcasing a 360 degree VR tool that helps patients explore the human body from the “inside out”. This could be a powerful virtualisation tool to help doctors explain to patients what is wrong with them, and the affect different treatments will have on the body.

On the retail side, a much discussed breakthrough in the tech industry is Google Tango’s AR platform. I tried out an app that allows you to pick furniture from Amazon and place it into the room you are in, with the freedom to move it around in the 3D space. The benefits of such a technology to buyers is completely evident, as you can see what your product will look like and how it will fit in your room without ever leaving the comfort of your own home. And it really works – even in the sub-optimal lighting of the show, the tracking and registration of the objects were very impressive.

There is still some way to go in VR and AR development, as a number of companies jostle to provide a fully-functional solution that is ready for mainstream adoption. However, this year’s Mobile World Congress left me optimistic that this future isn’t far off, with many products teasing the benefits of the mixed-reality world just around the corner. I look forward to seeing what developments the year ahead will bring.