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VR: Future or hype?

| By iGB Editorial Team
VR with the advent of affordable hardware is generating much excitement and investment in industry circles, but are the immersive experiences it offers going be an important part of the iGaming future any time soon? iGaming Consultant Aideen Shortt is unconvinced.

If you ask me, in 2016 a player or punter wanting virtual reality gambling games is like that person going to Paris Fashion Week, seeing an impossible model trot down the runway all jacked up on Uptown Funk and backstage champagne, wearing three or four triangles of fabric, and saying “Yes. Yes. That’s definitely what I want to buy so I can wear it to the King’s Arms on Saturday night”. In other words: what is fantastic and compelling in a carefully orchestrated artificial setting doesn’t necessarily have a bearing on the sofa in the living room.

I’m already on record as saying that Oculus Rift is to gambling in 2016 what the Apple Watch was in 2015 – namely, a non-starter beyond a half-decent PR stunt – and experiencing first-hand the alleged phenomenon has done nothing to change my mind.

Don’t get me wrong, Oculus Rift, and VR in general, is incredibly sexy technology and I’m already coveting a headset for myself. And I firmly believe that over time virtual reality will carve out a life-changing place in the gaming world and probably find alternative uses in sectors such as medicine, education and even business meetings as the next-level video conferencing. But despite it being so near, it’s still so far away, and even then it’s probably not for us.

Market size

As you would expect there are market projections emanating from every analyst’s calculator. But my personal view is that we know nothing about this topic yet, so it’s premature to pretend that we do.

Have a look at a synopsis from two separate pieces of research and decide for yourself.

The self-proclaimed Conservative Approach evaluation from Analysis Group in its 2015 Global Economic Impacts Associated with Virtual and Augmented Reality report projects that between 2016 and 2020, VR at a Low Adoption rate will reach a collective $2.8bn in revenue, and at High Adoption $24bn.

No, that’s not an epic autocorrect fail or a typo. The company has projected, with a serious face I would presume, a range gap of $21.2bn across just a five-year period. Quite frankly they might as well have said “Hmmm, nobody’s quite sure yet, so we’re just going to wing it”.

Another assessment from Digi-Capital groups virtual and augmented reality together, and forecasts AR/VR to hit $150bn revenue by 2020, with AR taking the lion’s share at around $120bn to VR’s $30bn. 

All this shows us is that the world knows nothing about this yet. So why is the gambling industry getting involved? For online gambling, VR is simply yet another “just because” technology, and just because it exists doesn’t mean we need to shoe-horn it into our product suites.

Who’s going virtual?

At ICE, Microgaming channelled their inner Star Trek with a futuristic silver pod accessed via appropriately swishing doors, where pretty folk in pristine white lab coats and an air of technological mystery waited to take you on a five-minute journey into what is best described as an attempt at an intergalactic casino.

NetEnt also showcased their VR slots, and Slots Millions have a whole casino that the player can walk through. Although this is available as a 360-degree experience on their website, so that’s all I, and most people, really need for now.

Time to immerse?

“I honestly don’t know how long it will take to build this ecosystem. It could be 5 years, it could be 10 years, it could be 15 or 20. My guess is that it will be at least 10. It took 10 years to go from building the initial smartphone to reaching the mass market”. That is a direct quote from Mark Zuckerberg, arguably VR’s biggest advocate based on Facebook’s purchase of Oculus Rift in 2014 for $2bn. That doesn’t quite get the heart racing, does it? And the main problem with that is the issue of content development vs hardware vs demand.

It’s neither a secret nor a surprise that the early adopters of VR technology will be the gamers. For first-person shooter, direct-action games, eSports, all that sector, VR will be (excuse the pun) a game changer. Why? It’s simple – because the immersive experience makes an incredible difference. VR will bring eSports to a new level entirely and that is where the value lies.

This immersive experience is completely unnecessary in online gambling, and unless something dramatically changes and we, as a global community, begin living our entire lives with headsets on, VR doesn’t add value outside of a limited number of categories over and beyond a novelty toy, and I remain unconvinced that most of those devices purchased in the Christmas rush won’t start gathering dust pretty quickly.

The smartphone was life-changing. Other mediums, on top of this medium (such as VR, and smart watches) are nice add-ons but not the huge step change that the PR people would have us believe.

Also, the harsh reality for gambling is that anything that distracts a player from the game is a cost, not a benefit. Time is money and all that nonsense. And there’s no doubt about it, VR is a distraction. Not only does the environment disrupt the player’s concentration and attention, but the reality is that it’s incredibly difficult to gamble in 360, not least because you spend most of the time looking in the wrong direction and missing the clickable hotspot with your virtual fingers.

Certainly there’s fun to be had with little Easter eggs (such as the ability to punch the asteroids into space in Microgaming’s offering), but it’s more common and pertinent for the operators to employ blunt instruments, often including literal directional arrows, to make you face the right direction and do the right thing…in this
case, spend your money.

Other than my initial curiosity of looking around a virtual casino floor (Slots Millions) or into the vastness of the universe (Microgaming), I found it became tiresome and monotonous to have to constantly second-guess which direction to look in and deal with accuracy issues that a mouse and trackball never threw up for me. The novelty wore thin very quickly.

New hardware, new future?

For the record, Oculus Rift is so called because Oculus is Latin for the eye and the Rift refers to the rift between the virtual and the real that the technology enables. That’s some big thinking right there from the teenaged Palmer Luckey who stereotypically created his prototype in his parents’ garage. But Oculus VR technology has become the cornerstone of VR endeavors and Luckey is the barefooted poster-boy.

At the end of March, the first Oculus Rift devices will be shipped, and join the nascent marketplace consisting mainly of Google Cardboard, HTC Vive and Samsung Gear VR (also powered by Oculus). Sony will jump into the mix later in 2016 with a Playstation VR compatible with more than 30 million PS4 in homes around the world, but experts believe that Sony’s efforts will dominate, but not get past, the console sector.

The most remarkable thing about the alleged consumer availability of high-end hardware such as Oculus or HTC devices is ironically how unavailable they really remain due to prohibitive costs.

The Oculus Rift hardware itself is expensive, but it also requires high-end computer hardware that most people don’t have right now. In an era where mainstream computing has settled nicely on laptops and even tablets, the sort of processing power that is required for the true experience of VR is predominantly the reserve of dedicated gamers (not the mass market).

There are lower entry points into the VR world¬ – the Samsung Gear has been available for a few months now and the screen and inner workings are driven by the Samsung phone, with the device priced at a more reasonable $100 – in fact all preordered Galaxy 7 phones even get the VR device for free.

Even cheaper is Google’s Cardboard, with a basic viewer at around $15 and the heavy lifting again done by your phone, but reports suggest only 1+ million units shipped. Admittedly this is a 100% increase on the 500,000 projected, but that’s semantics; twice a tiny number is still itself a tiny number.

Most people’s tentative steps into VR will not require any additional technology at all. Currently both Facebook and YouTube offer native 360-degree video formats that you can explore by moving your phone around the room. Such platforms are likely to be how the majority of consumers experience VR for the foreseeable future and possibly will fill the need the market isn’t even aware it has. It’s early days, however, and the number of 360-degree videos shared on Facebook has only just passed the 20,000 mark.

In conclusion

The hype in the gambling industry surrounding virtual reality is currently far greater than its need for this technology. And who knows what will turn our heads next – gambling on drones anyone? VR is an important part of “the future”, but what part and how is anybody’s guess right now, and our industry is best served to adopt a wait and see approach.

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