Hands on with Samsung’s web browser for virtual reality

5 Dec 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Bay Area firms make big bets on virtual reality.

“The future is already here, it’s just not very evenly distributed,” declared sci-fi genius William Gibson many moons ago. Menlo Park consulting firm Digi-Capital predicted that the market in virtual reality — technology that immerses people in a virtual world — should be worth about $30 billion by 2020.The Gear S2 launched by Samsung Electronics arrived in Saudi Arabia recently, presenting consumers with a device that caters to all their wearable needs. “The Samsung Gear S2 is purposefully designed with a versatile circular display and unique rotating bezel that provides an optimized user experience for precise and comfortable control,” the company stated.

Every 24 hours that passes by feels like I am slipping a little bit deeper into an alternate reality, where the cheesy tech dreams of ’90s sci-fi is becoming real.As Samsung gears up for the first-ever holiday shopping season with the consumer version of its Gear VR virtual reality headset on the market, it knows that great content is the key to attracting users and keeping them engaged.Since 2012, the Oculus Rift has been the poster child for virtual reality—a status that was upgraded immeasurable last year when Facebook FB 1.72% bought Oculus for $2 billion. And nothing says the future quite like virtual reality, a technology that’s frustratingly been on the cusp of breaking through to the present for years.

Ltd. 005930, -1.63% is pushing virtual-reality headsets this holiday season, and now it is debuting fresh content that it hopes will give buyers something exciting to watch after they unwrap a Gear VR. But the stars are aligning for a deluge of virtual-reality products early in the new year – backed by heavy hitters including Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Sony, Samsung and HTC. To be sure, the most publicized virtual reality playback equipment — like Facebook’s Oculus Rift or Sony’s PlayStation VR — won’t be available to consumers until sometime next year.

Catering to two consumer preferences, the Gear S2 classic is made for users who prefer a more timeless watch design, offering a black finish with a matching genuine leather band. Earlier this week, Samsung released what they are calling the Samsung Internet app, which is essentially their version of a web browser compatible with their Samsung Gear VR platform. And now the company has unveiled perhaps its most ambitious VR effort yet, a new interactive serial virtual reality “thriller” called Gone that will soon appear in Samsung’s official Milk VR channel on the Gear VR, with five- to six-minute episodes rolling out intermittently over the next few months.

The Korean smartphone giant partnered with Skybound Entertainment — an entertainment company led by Robert Kirkman, the creator of “The Walking Dead” comic book series, and David Alpert, an executive producer for the popular television series based on the comic — to create a mystery thriller series specifically written and filmed for virtual reality. But the local entrepreneurs’ projects go beyond gaming, ranging from education and physical therapy to space exploration. “So far, we’ve tapped only about 10 percent of the potential of what virtual reality can bring to us,” said Han Jin, CEO of LucidCam, which has developed a consumer-grade virtual reality camera it hopes to sell for GoPro-level prices. “It’ll take some time to take off, but we’re learning our lessons now,” said Lazzaro, whose Oakland firm is working on a virtual reality game. “Anyone who is in VR these days needs to be looking at two to five years out. The result of more than a year of work, “Gone,” will debut on Samsung’s premium Milk VR app on Tuesday, with more of its 11 episodes appearing later.

Mark Zuckerberg didn’t pay $2bn last year to acquire VR firm Oculus just for the laughs – Facebook figures it will change the face of entertainment and social interaction. “Oculus’s mission is to enable you to experience the impossible,” said Zuck at the time. Oculus, though, has not changed its position that pre-orders for the system will begin before the end of the year, and Palmer reiterated the Q1 2016 launch date at the show. Our latest wearable ensures that you get more out of every moment in your day by making it smarter and ultimately more personal and fun.” The 11.4-millimeter thin Gear S2 brings a light and compact design to the wrist. For example, it doesn’t have positional tracking, which means the headset is a lot like the Oculus DK1 released back in 2012—with all the motion sickness problems included. Petty, Gone takes viewers into the dramatic story of Meredith Clover, a mother desperate to find her missing 9-year-old daughter, Emilia, who disappeared from a crowded playground in broad daylight.

While no official figures are available for that system, it appears to be selling briskly, with Amazon AMZN 0.87% unable to keep it in stock and Samsung’s own site saying it can no longer guarantee delivery by Dec. 25. Fast Company says Gone will be a narrative driven through “hotspots.” You’re basically an invisible observer investigating particular clues, or hotspots, that only appear for a short time as the story unfolds. The concept for the project, explained executives from Samsung, the media company Skybound Entertainment—of The Walking Dead fame—and VR production company WEVR, was to present Gone’s audience with a way to look deeper into the story by investigating individual clues that are scattered throughout the production. “Visitors won’t solve the mystery of Gone without exploring all of its darker corners,” a Gone publicity synopsis reads. Viewers are able to click on “hotspots” during the episode to see clues, making it a very active experience compared with traditional television shows. “This is not a lean-back, eat-your-popcorn experience,” Samsung executive Matt Apfel said at Wednesday’s event. ”You are being challenged by things that appear in front of you.” The first episode felt like a hybrid of a video game and television show, which isn’t a surprise given that the series was written and directed by J.T. Also warming up on deck for next year is The Vive, a VR headset by HTC and Valve, as well as Sony’s SNE 0.55% PlayStation VR (formerly known as Project Morpheus).

The makers are hoping that every person will have a slightly different experience, and more importantly, want to watch Gone again and again and again. Virtual reality is certainly a big advancement, both technologically and for the entertainment industry, but analysts warn that despite the anticipated media blitz and proclamations that 2016 is the year of VR (and, perhaps, augmented reality as well, depending on what Microsoft does with Hololens), it’s going to be a slow start. “To over use the not used often enough baseball analogy, we don’t even think we are in the first inning yet,” says Ben Schachter of Macquarie Capital. “For VR/AR, we have just pulled into the parking lot and tailgating is about to begin. PitchBook said the most active investor is San Francisco’s Rothenberg Ventures, which virtual reality expert Tony Parisi called “ground zero for VR in the Bay Area.” Industry insiders say there are roughly 500 to 1,000 employees in the region employed by firms tackling some part of the virtual reality puzzle. Or, as Rachel Skidmore, Skybound’s director of media development and production, put it, “We wanted [you] to participate, and to build suspense, which comes from your own investigation.” Because the hotspots go away after a few seconds, it’s likely that not all viewers will be able to look at each one in chronological order.

A trailing wire runs back to a computer, which generates the 360-degree scene in the headset – everything from an uncannily realistic underwater diving wreck to a zombie outbreak in a desert. They range from Leap Motion, making hardware that adds hand and finger motions to virtual worlds, to SpaceVR, which has the lofty goal of placing its VR camera on the International Space Station. Ignoring the obvious walled garden for a moment, a Galaxy S6 (or whatever Sammy phone you have) can only handle so much, unlike say, a PC specifically designed for VR.

So Gone won’t exactly be the future of VR storytelling so much as an early prototype for VR movies–like how film was originally a vaudeville gimmick before tech innovations allowed it to go mainstream. Kenny Lauer, the Golden State Warriors vice president of digital marketing, explained at a Tuesday panel that Stanford medical researchers are experimenting with techniques that can help amputees visualize their old limbs to help speed recovery.

Aaron Luber, head of Google’s virtual reality and Cardboard partnerships, said the medium represents the “future of computing” because it’s on the same trajectory as other technology, “from the original Macintosh computers to the first smartphone.” He noted that Mattel is marketing a View-Master branded virtual reality viewer to 7- to 10-year-olds. Meanwhile, PlayStation VR is the only system designed for consoles, ensuring that players get a consistent experience that’s not reliant on their PC’s graphics and computer processing power. “It has a lot of buzz,” says Liam Callahan, games industry analyst for The NPD Group. “We’ve been promised VR culturally, whether it’s the holodeck in Star Trek or the Danger Room in X-Men, for a long time.

It’s just like most web browsers in that I can open multiple tabs, but instead of having those tabs hide away underneath other content, they stay up on their own panel in the environment. As of right now, with the Web currently designed as a two-dimensional platform, there isn’t much actual HTML/CSS/Javascript content that can really take advantage of virtual reality. It isn’t as if I can’t replicate the experience with a large table, a grip of monitors, and the handy “open new window” feature of most browsers.

I keep referencing Johnny Mnemonic in the screenshots I use while discussing virtual reality, which is an incredibly cheesy movie, but the ideas in that movie are slowly creeping their way into the real world. There isn’t as much whiz-bang and kaboom to the audiovisuals of the experience, but I am essentially controlling panels attached to the information superhighway, while standing in an imaginary digital room.

Maybe I’m preparing myself for future stubbornness, where I will grasp onto a concept destined to be outmoded — but maybe content on web pages shouldn’t evolve beyond being clumps of words, with the occasional static image or streaming video thrown in?

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