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Augmented or Virtual: Reality still eludes Indian market

You must have noticed Virtual Reality (VR) stations tucked away in a corner at your neighbourhood mall that require kids to wear head-mounted devices (HMDs) to experience an immersive world.

At the moment, for an Indian consumer, the ultimate 360 degree VR experience is either limited to those stations or headgear sold bundled with smartphones. But most of those HMDs are yet to evolve, even as VR developers aim to build high-quality games to drive more people towards the technology.

Despite arriving on the scene some two-three years back, mass-level VR impact is yet to be seen -- both on the consumer and enterprise fronts -- though things have slowly started picking up.

In the meantime, industry experts are giving Augmented Reality (AR) a definite edge over VR. Unlike VR, AR lets users continue to be in touch with the real world while interacting with the virtual world.

According to a new report from International Data Corporation (IDC), worldwide spending on AR/VR is forecast to reach $17.8 billion in 2018 -- an increase of nearly 95 per cent over the $9.1 billion in 2017.

"VR and AR are disruptive technologies, but they will take years to emerge. There was a lot of buzz and hype in 2016 for AR with the 'Pokemon Go' craze -- and with VR too, with Facebook saying VR was the next computing platform," said Thomas Husson, Vice President and Principal Analyst, Forrester.

"In 2017, we saw more realism about the opportunities VR and AR will open up and, at the same time, more tools made available to developers to build new AR experiences with Apple's 'ARKit' and Google's 'ARCore,' " Husson told IANS.

Although smartphone giant Apple is yet to shake up the AR/VR market, the company has introduced "ARKit" in iOS 11 -- a new framework that allows developers to create unparalleled AR experiences for iPhones and iPads.

Google has also released a new software development kit (SDK) called "ARCore" that brings AR capabilities to the existing and future Android phones.

"Soon, there will be hundreds of millions of iOS compatible devices for Apple "ARKit" starting to create effects of scale and scope," said Husson.

According to Thomas George, Senior Vice President and Head of CyberMedia Research (CMR), when it comes to India, AR/VR is still in the initial stages of adoption. 

"However, the AR/VR market in India is expected to register a compounded annual growth rate (CAGR) of more than 50 per cent in the next five years," George told IANS.

"Applications of AR/VR for headgear and mounted display are on the rise, particularly in sectors like retail, auto, health care, training, defence, gaming and entertainment -- areas that are at the forefront of AR/VR adoption in the country," George added.

In the consumer space, apart from Samsung Gear VR at Rs 7,290 which is still the leader, Xiaomi has launched Mi VR Play 2 (Rs 12,999) while Lenovo just unveiled a stand-alone VR headset "The Mirage Solo" -- housing motion-tracking technology on the VR platform of Google Daydream (itself an excellent standalone VR device) -- at CES 2018.

In the AR/VR arena, the big devices that are making news are Microsoft Hololens, Oculus Rift and HTC Vive.

"I think AR will grow much faster than VR since it will be powered by the scale of smartphones and is a more natural extension of mobile behaviour, while VR requires some additional and expensive equipment," Husson noted. 

Some companies will rightly invest in VR for educational and training purposes, maintenance and productivity improvements to help consumers try complex and expensive products.

"AR will start in the gaming and social space but will gain traction among traditional brands (consumer electronics, home equipment, furniture, etc)," Husson predicted. 

According to George, AR/VR will also play a key role in areas like research and development.

Immersive technologies like AR/VR in India will also have potential for industries like public safety as well as retail, real estate, entertainment and tourism.

"An AR platform can take us on a heritage trail that can help people access images, video and audio providing tourists a view of the place and its history," George added.

A rising number of consumer electronics applications such as gaming and entertainment are witnessing adoption of AR and VR devices as smartphone penetration continues to rise (India has over 300 million smartphone users).

Applications like immersive learning and entertainment, especially high-quality games, on top of state-of-the-art affordable headsets could kick-start AR/VR adoption sooner, experts stressed.