We met Olivier Palmieri, Director of XR Workshop & Game Director at Ubisoft Montreal, to discuss Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR), including their latest developments and their current and future applications as learning tools. Here is the third interview of the series.
Olivier has been in the video game industry for over 20 years. He has worked on various projects including the Rayman series, Ghost Recon, Assassin’s Creed and Far Cry. He is the creator of Ubisoft’s first virtual reality game, Eagle Flight, which won a D.I.C.E. 2017 for its technical realization in immersive reality.
Long perceived as a niche technology, beyond the reach of ordinary people, virtual reality (VR) has been trying to become more accessible in recent years. Some major players, including Google with its Cardboard, have been attempting to bring it to the lowest possible cost. At the same time, the high-end models, whose rapid evolution is impressive, continue to sell for several hundred dollars. Such a price difference is enough to leave the nonexperts perplexed.
VR headsets are available for $15. What should we make of it?
It’s a bit of a problem for companies that have started to create all kinds of different equipment to stand out from the crowd and try to take over the market. Some of them tried to target the low-cost segment. With the Google Cardboard at 10-15 dollars, the VR has become very affordable… Has it been beneficial? Was it harmful? Maybe it helped to popularize it a little bit, to make it clear what it was. But at the same time, some consumers have been able to test a cardboard headset and say to themselves, “Ah that’s virtual reality, it’s a cardboard thing that doesn’t work very well…” Well yes, indeed, it doesn’t necessarily work well since it’s a $10 cardboard headset! So I think it is good and bad.
That said, we are moving further and further away from this problem, mainly because headsets of better quality, mid-range, around 300 dollars are beginning to arrive on the market, and that eventually, prices will surely drop even further. You still have to realize that in a VR headset there is a lot of technology: there is motion capture, performance, displays, etc. Even managing to design a $300 headset is quite a challenge!
And is there everything in these headsets?
Yes, there are still headsets today that only include the rotational movements of the head, which do not decode the changes in movements in space. But the ones that will be released in 2019, those of generation 2, will be mobile, autonomous, fully integrated headsets that will understand movement in space and that will also have controllers to be able to decode hand movements. This is what is coming in 2019 and at an affordable price.
What is a little frustrating for the industry is that people find it reasonable to buy a phone for $800 or $1,000, but they find $300 for a VR headset too expensive. There’s a lot of technology in these headsets… it’s very advanced.
Can we hope to see shortly the best headsets sell for less than $300?
I don’t know if one day we’ll really get $100 headsets. Maybe we don’t want to lower the prices so low, because it’s like a phone: there are $50, but we can’t expect them to give us the same experience as a high-end $800 model. Today, already, the mid-range headsets that are coming out are very good. There is a minimum price to pay for a complete VR experience that you wouldn’t get with a $50, $20 or $15 headset.
You might think that virtual reality headsets are selling less and less, but there was really a jump in sales at the end of 2018, stronger than in the past. More were sold in that quarter than in any other quarter before. The most popular headsets were the Oculus Go, a stand-alone $300 headset, and the PlayStation VR. The other headsets also continue to sell, and they have sold more. Let’s say that for Christmas 2019 the sales forecasts for second-generation headsets are very good.
Will it end up being affordable and practical for SMEs to adopt VR to train their staff?
Yes, there are several VR companies working to ensure that this technology is accessible at all levels to small and medium-sized companies, through the price of the equipment or its ease of use. Today, there are already mobile headsets with limited technology, but with the stand-alone headsets coming out this year we won’t need a computer or anything else. Everything will be there, integrated into these mid-range headsets.
In terms of access to equipment, I think we are moving towards better access. In terms of the computers used to create RV experiments, we are moving in this direction, because four years ago, we really needed very powerful machines that were expensive: at least $2,000. Today, machines are becoming more and more efficient, and an $800 machine can both “run” VR experiences or make them possible.
As for the software part, there are also more and more simplified tools for VR or augmented reality that are beginning to emerge. In AR, Apple and Android have released their ARCore and ARkit kits to allow more people to design applications.
In virtual reality, there are also several companies working on simplified tools to design, architect and implement elements to make this technology easier to access and simpler to use for all companies.
When could VR become a widely used training tool in business?
There are already companies that have dared to take an early interest in this market, and have done it well! Last year, Walmart announced that it had purchased 17,000 Oculus Go headsets – $300 mobile versions – for training its employees. They bought 17,000… imagine that! Recently, I saw news from companies that are starting to learn in VR, in AR, what is actually called “XR” and which includes all these technologies. It’s not a huge market yet, but you can create your place in it, today!
But won’t these headsets be obsolete in 2-3 years?
Yes, but I think it’s a first stage, a first step in the adoption of VR. It’s always a question of when do we enter a market, do we go on it too soon… But if we don’t start at the right time, everyone will have passed us. I think that AR and VR will be new the tools for elearning.
Do companies that use VR for training see the benefits?
We should really dig deeper and ask each company to do it. I don’t want to speak for other companies, but I see a lot of articles, a lot of schools, training programs, tools and a lot of companies that are gradually getting into the use of VR in training. Microsoft and Oculus, for example, want to get closer and closer to the education side. In fact, these companies that do VR, while communicating with them, I hear them talking a lot, over the past year, about education. They believe very strongly that training will become one of the big markets of the future for virtual reality and augmented reality.