Source: Deccan Chronicle

Young Indian developers are creating an ecosystem of 3D Virtual Reality content.

PlayStation 4 virtual reality headset, Project Morpheus (Photo: AP)

 PlayStation 4 virtual reality headset, Project Morpheus (Photo: AP)

Mumbai: There was a time when people didn’t mind the stares of passers by, as they stuck huge brick-sized contraptions — early mobile phones — to their faces and shouted into them. A decade later they didn’t mind to be taken for loonies, as they spoke in public, seemingly to themselves, using earpieces with their handsets. This year, get set for another bunch of goofies who will soon appear in public, their heads encased in all-encompassing goggles. Spare your scorn: they’re busy in a virtual duniya of their own, touching the future — virtually.

Virtual Reality (VR) headsets are now widely available — and while the big global offerings this year,  may come with an asking price of Rs 50,000 to Rs 1 lakh, jugaad is at work here too — and Indian innovators have already launched VR gear that costs Rs 2000, or is even given away free with some smart phone brands. What’s more, young Indian developers have created an ecosystem of 3D VR content, without which, the most fancy headsets are so much headache rather than a heady experience.

 Yet VR as we know it today is in fact the Second Coming of the technology and like so many of today’s personal technologies like smart watches and gesture controls,  drew inspiration from science fiction. The term ‘Virtual Reality’ first popped up in ‘The Judas Mandala’, a 1982 novel by Australian Damien Broderick. Ten years later immersive and computer simulated 3-D environments were created at enormous expense, using special studios, head-mounted LCD displays, special haptic (that is, touchy-feely) gloves fed by powerful desktop computers.

Remember Michael Douglas as the embattled techie in the film version of Michael Crichton’s thriller “Disclosure” entering the VR system of his company to access the records spiked by his vengeful female boss (Demi Moore)? That was 1994, and one of the first visualizations of VR that the lay-public got to see.

Michael Douglas entering the VR system in the movie 'DisclosureThat same year, the late Dr N Seshagiri, then Director -General, National Informatics Centre, had set up one of the world’s first VR Labs in Delhi — VELNIC or the Virtual Environment Lab of NIC. He made a dramatic entrance in Hyderabad, a few weeks later, at the Indian Computer Congress, wearing a VR head set as he delivered his keynote address, illustrating how all government records could be virtualized and stored for posterity the VR way. Fiction had morphed into fact.

The 1990s brand of VR was too elitist and too costly (the Indian VELNIC system, one of the cheapest in the world, cost the equivalent of $80,000), to make much of an impact except as a tool for the military to mimic war games. It shrivelled and died — only to see nirvana two decades later, around 2014.

Meanwhile, the geeks had learnt their lesson: technology had to touch people if it was to be meaningful or commercially viable. VR Mark II is doing just that.

In March 2014, Facebook spent $2 billion to acquire a US company, Oculus VR, that was making the modern virtual reality headset.

Oculus Rift

Their product, Oculus Rift was finally launched in a few select markets earlier this year, but its India availability has not been announced. The Rift is a $599 (Rs 40,000) headset which was widely praised as the most immersive product in this niche — till a few weeks ago, the Taiwan-based HTC upstaged it with its own offering , Vive, at $799 (Rs 56,000). While Rift — thanks to its Microsoft connection —uses the XBox game pad as its controller, Vive comes with dedicated motion controllers and a set of base stations

Both these contenders at the pricey end of VR need a dedicated, graphics-enabled PC to work. Add that cost and they are well above Rs 1 lakh.  Sony has announced its own VR headset which will work with the PlayStation 4 console but the product is not expected till October.

Sony VR headsetSony VR headset

The need to tether the VR system to a computer may yet become a roadblock for such systems — unless they can come up with an experience that is literally out of this world.  Meanwhile, a disruptor has appeared on the scene — VR headsets that are stripped down in their abilities and harness the computing power of a smart phone rather than a PC. Samsung’s Gear VR is a leader in this new, emerging segment but its use is limited to a small range of Samsung phones.

With neither Oculus Rift nor HTC hive available here, the phone-based VR segment is exploiting its window of opportunity. Last year, Google launched a very basic do-it-yourself headset called Cardboard — which was just that, a brown box with a couple of lenses stuck in and with rubber bands to hold the phone.

Google cardboardGoogle cardboard

You can buy a kit online for about Rs 500. Companies like OnePlus and last week Tata Motors, have given away such kits for free, in millions to promote their products with a compatible 3-D VR app.

 Indian innovation

Indian companies have innovated to make VR affordable for the rest of us in two ways:

The Chennai-based Zebronics has launched the Zeb VR and its thick foam padding and pair of focus-adjusting lenses  make for comfortable headset that at Rs 1,600 is as good a fit as global brands costing Rs 10,000 and more.  And Zebronics has removed one pain point: the Zeb VR can be used with any make of smart phone up to 6 inches in size.

The problem with all VR sets is what do you do with it. To some extent Zebronics has solved the problem by making its headset compatible with Google Cardboard apps — and being the big gorilla in this business Google is seeing a growing collection of free 3-D and VR friendly apps available.

Zebronics VR headset

Another Indian phone maker, Karbonn has taken a different route: The company has just launched two phones — the 5-inch dual SIM 4G Quattro L52 (Rs 8,790) and the 6-inch 3G Karbonn Max 6 (Rs 7,496) with VR software bundled and pre-installed — and the VR headset thrown in for free.

At one stroke, these two players have suddenly made India arguably the first and biggest testing ground anywhere in the world for consumer-facing VR.

A few days ago, the Chinese company Le Eco (formerly LETV) unveiled its new VR headset, among a suit of products, in a launch event in Beijing and the product is expected to be available in India soon.

Plugging software gap

In a parallel development, Indian software companies have seized the opportunity to fill the yawning gap that today faces VR equipment buyers: It’s great if you are a games freak — because virtually every big single shooter or multiplayer video game has come out with VR versions that take the player even deeper into the virtual maidan of the race track, the battlefield or what ever.  But what’s in it for those who seek a more meaningful experience?

Imaginate, a VR company incubated at the International Institute of Information Technology, Hyderabad and founded 4 years ago by Hemant Satyanarayana, has launched a serious of innovative applications for VR hardware:

  • Dressy, a virtual online fitting room where from the comfort of your home you can try out a variety of dresses and sizes before ordering them online.
  • ShootAR, a simulator for the Indian Army to train soldiers in marksmanship and tackling terrorists
  • HeritageAR, an initiative adopted by the Aga Khan Foundation and available as an app at the Google Play Store where one can virtually tour the Quli Qutb Shahi Tombs

The company made at hit at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona this year with its latest VR product, the Connected Car virtual tour.

Imaginate's VR headset

Another VR content creator, is the Mumbai-based Meraki  led by an IIT Bombay- and-film making foursome of Arvind Ghorwal, Sairam Saigiraju, Parth Choksi and Agam Garg which has made a name as a creator of 360-degree videos of sporting events, reality shows, adventure sport etc.

Meraki creatuve teamMeraki creative team (Photo: YourStory.com)

A few months ago, three undergraduates from BITS Pilani- Goa — Shubham Mishra, Vrushali Prasade, and Harikrishna Valiyath — decided to drop out and out-do Oculus at their own game. They started a company — Absentia — in Bengaluru and created a VR headset they called Tesseract, which offers 360 degree military-grade head tracking and the ability to watch any game or movie in 3-D. Like so many of the Indian entrants in this arena, the headset works with all current games and movies. The company has just landed Rs 1.2 crores in funding  and the Tesseract is currently offered for pre booking at Rs 20,000.

Chennai-based Ingage founded by ex Intel and AMD executive Vijay Karunakaran, treads the thin line that separates Virtual Reality from Augmented Reality. While VR takes the user into an entirely artificial environment AR integrates new digital information into the user’s environment, in real time.

The Google Glass — another pricey invention that has generally been shunned by lay users is a prime example. InGage has launched a multi-brand Augmented Reality Mobile App called “InGage” on Apple itunes and Android Google Play designed for brands across a broad spectrum of industries to engage with their customers in an interactive manner.

The company has partnered with educational publishers like Ratna Sagar to enhance class 2 to class 8 lessons with 3-D augmented imagery, even as  Indian talent -fueled Blippar, the world’s biggest visual search tool has joined Amar Chithra Katha to let readers interact with their favourite characters like Suppandi!

Perhaps the one industry that will embrace VR most zealously is tourism — and it only needs one look at a site like IndiaVRTours.com, featuring awesome  360 degree views of India’s top tourist attractions, to appreciate  that the possibilities of enhancing visitor experience are limitless.

Samsung Gear VR & HTV Vive

VR

The first thought that comes to mind while using the Samsung Gear VR headset is how comfortable it is to wear after DIY offerings like Cardboard. Now we know where the money goes! For gaming and navigation it comes with a sensor pad on the right side, which was not too sensitive to recognize the finger movements quickly. Compared to PC-linked VR headsets, the Gear VR offers an advantage of unwired movement for 360 degree videos. The visuals for both 2-D and 3-D content were neat when we tried it with the Samsung Galaxy S7. There is a zoom control on the top of the set

VR

The Gear VR is basically meant for you to watch videos and plays games with compatible Samsung smart phones, which we feel is a bit restrictive. The Samsung Gear VR is ideal for select Samsung phone owners, who just want to get the look and feel of a virtual reality device for the asking price of Rs 8,200.

HTC VIVE

Months ahead of its formal launch in India, HTC organised a road show of its Vive VR solution. Unlike the Gear VR, HTC Vive isn’t meant for smart phones. It is a PC-based VR device with arguably the best experience currently on offer.

Gaming with the HTC Vive gives you an immersive experience. You get to roam around the room freely and also make gestures using the hand controllers. We felt that the controllers were highly responsive and interactive. There’s also the base stations that sense your movement and create a mesh-like visual if you get close to the wall, avoiding bumps.

The 3D video playback was amazing as we got totally immersed into the ocean (we were shown a video of underwater life). The images were so real that we felt slightly dizzy after removing the device.

The HTC Vive headset comes with dual hand operated controllers and two base stations to mark the boundaries of the experience area. It is priced at $799 (Rs 56,000) but one has to factor in another $ 1000 ( Rs 70,000) at least for a compatible graphics PC.

VR in the OR

An operation on a patient with colon cancer was performed last week at the Royal London Hospital — the first ever to be broadcast live using two 360 degree VR cameras. Medical students in the gallery as well as hundreds of professionals outside watched every detail of the surgery from multiple angles on cheap Cardboard type VR headsets strapped to their mobile phones using a downloaded app.

VR

The surgery was led by Bangladesh born Dr Shafi Ahmed, who runs a healthcare company called Medical Realities which specializes in VR and AR-based medical training. Their solution, The Virtual Surgeon, lets professional viewers see surgeries through the eye of the surgeon and works with Oculus Rift, Samsung Gear VR — and the cheapest cardboard VR set.

For Indians who take the first tentative steps to trying out the future, by investing in a VR headset or a VR paired phone, this year, it does look as if their investment will not be in vain: the critical mass of content for VR is being created right here, in a mix of education and entertainment that they will shrewdly judge to be paisa vasool. The Future has arrived!