Everybody wants a piece of virtual reality in the Middle East

Heba Hashem

Saturday 26 November 2016

Virtual reality (VR) is taking the Middle East by storm, and GITEX, the region’s biggest computer and electronics trade show, is testimony to this remarkable demand.

The annual event in Dubai ran from 16 to 20 October this year and showcased the largest area in the event’s 35-year history for VR and augmented reality (AR) – around 560 square metres of dedicated space.

Gitex 2016_ Supplied by Gitex

Credit: GITEX

Strong impressions

Entertainment and digital marketing were the primary focus for most VR products, reflecting a global trend that is gaining ground in the Middle East.

Dubai-based digital media house Reach MENA, for example, launched its first VR product last summer to support its creative studio. Through Sense R, the company offers brands a platform to engage with audiences and promote everything from tourist destinations and fashion catwalks to automotive test drives and properties.

“Property developers currently use 3D models to promote their projects, but with VR they are able to show potential customers more accurate 360-degree views,” says Usman Ahmed, senior account manager at Reach MENA.

Similarly, Ahmed says hotels are using VR to display hyper-realistic footage of their facilities to encourage guests to stay with them.

For government entities, VR is a much more effective tool than traditional media for getting messages across to the public.

“We’re using our technology with government departments especially for training and awareness campaigns,” Ahmed says. “For instance, we’re planning to have a VR activation with a telecom operator to promote energy and environment conservation in the UAE.

“In the first vision we’ll show Dubai as a happy city, and in the VR vision it will have a dry landscape where people will look tired. So with the help of the VR we’re showing how the future could be if we don’t change our consumption patterns.”

Casual users

Education could be the next big market for VR technology, as witnessed by Opto, a London-based firm that launched the world’s first mobile VR headset with integrated sound at GITEX.

Unlike many devices on the market, the Opto Air VR headset features built-in sound and does not need external headphones. Moreover, because of its compatibility with all major smartphone brands, it allows users to download games and films via apps.

Opto Air_ Image credit-Opto

Credit: Opto

“Casual users have been largely ignored by the largest headset manufacturers, who have concentrated almost exclusively on the high-end gaming market,” says Mahdi Yahya, CEO of Opto.

According to Yahya, many people want to watch and experience VR films, photographs and games, but are intimidated by the products currently in the market.

Designed with casual, first-time users in mind, Opto Air is attracting newcomers from diverse sectors, including education.

“There’s certainly an educational application for this product,” says Tom Jarvis, Opto’s chief design officer. “We’ve been speaking with many people from the education sector at GITEX. What they like about the headset is that it’s simple to use and quick to set up.”

Virtual surgery

Meanwhile, one startup has decided to cater to the challenging needs of the medical sector. German Medical Reference (GMR) launched its specialised VR platform during GITEX and has seen “overwhelming interest” according to founder Naim Khader.

The technology provides an immersive experience to medical professionals and students, enabling them to virtually step inside the human body, interact with all 13 body systems and get audible and textual information about the anatomy in both Arabic and English.

Using VR controllers, they can drag and move body organs, expand complex structures and even perform virtual surgeries, a process that could help prevent medical errors in actual operations.

GMR - Detailed Anatomical Content_ Image credit- German Medical Reference

Credit: German Medical Reference

“We want to provide the healthcare sector with a new learning process instead of old conventional methods like books and illustrations,” Khader says. “Studying how the human body operates shouldn’t be theoretical, but experimental.”

Within days of launching, GMR had been invited by some of the world’s top universities and research centres to bring the VR platform to their facilities. With offices in Jordan and Germany, the company now plans to set up branches in the UAE and Saudi Arabia.

In the next phase of development, GMR will integrate French and German content, and will add the female gender to the human anatomy. The company also plans to create a simplified version for younger students and connect the entire software with MRI and CT scans.

Bringing augmented reality to smartphones

Virtual reality and augmented reality (AR) are closely related – they both borrow similar technology. However, while virtual reality creates an entirely new digital world for users to experience, augmented reality enhances the real world by incorporating digital and virtual elements into it.

Lenovo recently launched the PHAB2 Pro, the world’s first Tango-enabled smartphone to enable AR experiences. The PHAB2 Pro is powered by Tango technology – a set of sensors and software from Google that senses and maps its surroundings – and makes a host of cutting-edge smartphone AR experiences possible.

For example, using AR apps, students can place true-to-scale virtual dinosaurs in their classrooms and enhance their learning through AR data overlays that appear while they walk around the creatures. AR gaming experiences let you play virtual dominos on your kitchen table, raise a digital pet in your bedroom and fight back swarms of aliens invading your house.

Homeowners can also now use their PHAB2 Pro to remodel their homes by visualising real home furnishings in their living rooms and kitchens. Home improvement company Lowe’s is one of the first partners to develop a Tango-enabled application, Lowe’s Vision. The app empowers customers by leveraging Tango technology to measure spaces and visualise how products like appliances and décor, or materials like countertops or backsplash tile will all look and fit together in a room. With Lowe’s Vision, customers will be able to control a new generation of augmented reality tools with a mere tap of the finger.

26 Nov - ME - Everybody wants a piece of VR in the ME - Full

Credit: Lenovo

Booming market

Deloitte recently predicted that VR will have its first billion-dollar year in 2016, with about $700 million in hardware sales and $300 million from content. The global accounting firm estimates some 2.5 million VR headsets and 10 million game copies will be sold this year.

International Data Corporation, on the other hand, expects global VR hardware shipments to generate approximately $2.3 billion in 2016. In its first worldwide VR forecast, the market intelligence group predicted total shipment volumes would increase from 9.6 million units this year to 64.8 million units by 2020, a staggering annual growth rate of 183.8 per cent.