Technology’s Holy Week in Sin City
We are still a long way from mass adoption of extended reality (XR), the collective name for virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR) and mixed reality (MR), but the battle still rages between the technology giants to see who will make “the next big computing platform.” The corona crisis has only fueled the fire, which is why I post an overview each month of the most noteworthy events and important changes in the XR landscape.
What Happens in Vegas…
January is always exciting for technology and gadget lovers. Normally, at the beginning of each year some 200,000 people come to Las Vegas for the Holy Week of consumer electronics. For tech investors, tech startups, production companies, and journalists, CES marks the start of the calendar year. The vibe in and around the convention center is unmatched and it is–and will remain–Las Vegas. (There’s a reason it’s called "The City of Lost Wages," "Sin City" or "The Entertainment Capital of The World”). CES is not only about doing business, but living up to Vegas’ reputation.
In my case, I have been lucky enough to visit CES twice. The first time was in 2015. We had just started with virtual reality production and started exploring the state of industry and its viability across on the other side of the Atlantic. Virtual reality was a big hit during the show back then, with companies like Oculus, Samsung, Nokia, Kodak and Intel already committed to this hype. I deliberately say "hype," because two years later VR was still being promoted in booths and felt passé, when in fact, it had yet to start. Samsung and Nokia have since left the business and Oculus was now organizing its own product launch events.
Like other major events, CES had to reach the general public virtually this year. A TV show streamed from a studio through a web platform. Keynote speakers called in via a webcam and an exhibition stand was nothing more than a web page where you could watch videos of the products and download brochures. The event had a bigger audience than if it were help in-person, but still suffered from a lack of presence and engagement like most webinar events. It was a more affordable edition for the exhibitors, but I don't think the virtual edition of CES will be able to match the real thing any time soon.
The Farm Goes Virtual
Still, there were companies that found opportunity in the new format. John Deere, for example, an American tractor and manufacturer of agricultural machinery exhibited at CES only for the third time this year. Their aim was not so much to present products, but mainly to generate media attention for their innovations, such as the integration of artificial intelligence in their machinery and the 5G networks recently installed in their Iowa and Illinois factories.
The biggest flaw with virtual trade shows like CES is the inability to see, feel, and try out the products. To overcome this hurdle, John Deere developed tractor demos in VR and sent journalists headsets. The goal was to virtually teleport the journalists to a farm to see the company's products at work during planting season. Offering a tangible, immersive element to the press is essential to translating the scale and importance of John Deere's products, as well as educating those unfamiliar with farming.
This approach turned out to be a hit, so much so John Deere's PR campaign became world news. Not only did it generate great reach, but designing the interactive VR experience, shipping the Oculus Quest 2 headsets to users, and other associated costs turned out to be lower than exhibiting in person at the Las Vegas Convention Center. John Deere's budget for CES 2021 was about 75% of its normal CES spend—and they beat their target.
Procter & Gamble launches virtual LifeLab
With CES 2021 completely digital this year, P&G marketers had to find a way to ensure their brands and the virtual experience didn't just stay in Vegas. Procter & Gamble launched a new version of its annual "LifeLab." It is a game-like platform similar to The Sims and Second Life. Avatars could break dance in between product demonstrations of high-end razors or electric toothbrushes. In this VR experience, the behemoth in household and personal care products wanted to introduce its target audience to the latest products and share its vision for the future.
The LifeLab, a dedicated hyperfair, will become a permanent virtual extension of the company as there are plans use it at other major events like the Cannes International Festival of Creativity (aka Cannes Lions) and the Olympic Games in Tokyo. P&G and its subsidiaries will also use the virtual LifeLab to engage with retailers, and there are even plans to make the platform available to consumers year-round.
Head, Set, Go
On top of the interesting product launches at CES, some highlighted products were in various stages of growth. The current wave of augmented reality glasses hold no appeal for me right now. In fact, I think we will have to make do with smartphone and tablet applications for a while—the technology is not yet able to meet expectations. Expect 5G to play a decisive role. As far as VR is concerned, there was notable news this month. VR hardware is advancing in development and gradually, the “hockey stick” upswing is coming into view. Covid-19 has obviously been a big help in terms of adoption.
The most remarkable VR headsets presented at CES this year were undoubtedly those from Panasonic. Last year the first edition of this headset was introduced, but in just one year they have made enormous progress. For example, the glasses evolved from a 3DOF to 6DOF (degrees of freedom) device, meaning you can move freely in a room with the glasses. The design resembles "steampunk” making it a lot smaller than other VR goggles. The glasses connect to a telephone or PC with a USB-C cable and work with 5G.
The Fight between the Big Boys & their Toys
I have previously spoken about Samsung suddenly disappearing from the market. Since 2018, it has remained relatively quiet about a possible successor for the Odyssey. The XR plans seemed to have been shelved for good, but rumors persist that work is being done in secret on a new HMD (Head Mounted Display). These plans can usually be deduced from patents assigned to new designs. Last year, Samsung patented two designs for new glasses (including one with “bee eyes”), and notably registered the trademark "Galaxy Space" at the beginning of January. The green light was also given to controllers that go with this device.
It is not at all surprising that Samsung would return to the scene. They have been battling with Apple for years, especially on the smartphone and tablet fronts. After these two markets, XR is considered the "next big computing platform," so it makes sense for Samsung to rejoin the turf war. Gradually, we are learning more about Apple's VR/AR plans. Like always, they were absent at CES, but in recent weeks a lot of well-timed news came out about the launch of a potential VR headset.
Bloomberg, the American media outlet, reported last week that Apple is working on a VR headset in Cupertino, similar to the Oculus Quest, which would be launched next year. Apple would see this as a precursor to their AR glass which would not be launched until 2023 or later. For those who have followed their acquisitions in recent years, this comes as no surprise and is completely in line with expectations. According to Bloomberg, it would be a niche product priced between $300 - $900 and will target dedicated Apple fans. Success will probably depend on the app store and available content. So it now looks like Facebook will have to compete against Apple AND Samsung in the fight for consumer VR market share.
CES 2021 is already over, as is the month of January. It has been another eventful period in the XR industry, where puzzle pieces are finally starting to fall into place. As for Virtual CES–as deeply as I believe in the future of virtual and hybrid events–some experiences have no substitute. I, for one, certainly hope to travel again next year to "The City of Lost Wages", "Sin City" or "The Entertainment Capital of The World”–whatever you want to call it–because I can't wait to experience CES for a third time. Whichever of the nicknames I think suits Las Vegas best, however, will remain a well-kept secret for now.