, Siemens AG
, Naval Research Laboratory
Pages: pp. 28-29
The microelectronic revolution at the beginning of the 20th century enabled the development of a large variety of microelectronic-based devices. Software control added another functional complexity level. Thus, the handling of devices soon became a central concern to the end user. Although machine intelligence, ubiquitous information, and the communication infrastructure are evolving, the man-machine partnership remains in its intellectual infancy.
However, virtual reality offers a promising solution for man-machine interface problems. Today, VR has passed beyond the peak of inflated expectations and the trough of disillusionment. It now lies somewhere between the slope of enlightenment and the plateau of productivity. Industry indicates this trend—it's just now beginning to apply VR technology quite successfully in some domains. Likewise, research activities in academia and research laboratories are becoming organized in the tradition of a well-established discipline.
The effective funding of any major field of research such as VR is significantly tied to future business prospects. The more mature the field, the more the demand for results. Anticipated economic success drives funding.
Military and aerospace agencies, especially in the US, have boosted VR research and development. The rapid progress of technology combined with highly automated manufacturing processes enable shorter and shorter product development cycles. Whereas radio took 40 years to reach a 50-million customer base in the US, the World Wide Web needed less than five years. The virtual pet, Tamagotchi—which doesn't depend on a service infrastructure—made it in only 15 months. In addition, software producers post their products on the Web and software downloads on the Internet require only a couple of hours.
However, academic solutions don't necessarily lead to successful commercial products. Neither does mastering a technology such as VR and implementing it into a product.
According to Carl Machover, 1 the market for VR hardware, software, systems, and services is about $3 billion today. This is a niche market compared to computing ($200-billion PC market in 2000) and communication ($700-billion telecommunication services market in 2000) market segments. VR-market players like SGI ($3 billion), Engineering Animation ($100 million), and Division ($5 million) are quite small compared to big information and communication technology companies like AT&T ($53 billion), Compaq ($31 billion), or Cisco ($9 billion) (data in 1998 revenues).
Today, VR technology is beginning to affect a couple of vertical industry segments. In some cases, productive, everyday applications replace vaguely focused field trials. Vertical applications include construction, power plants, industry automation, military, aerospace, automotive, oil exploration, entertainment, retail, broadcast, and medical. Horizontal segments comprise design and development, rapid prototyping, simulation and training, and marketing. Except for games, medicine, retail commerce, and certain military applications, today's VR applications mainly target
VR-based solutions within these segments have proven costly and customized, requiring highly skilled experts to develop and operate. (See Fred Brooks' article in this issue for elaborate application examples and a detailed analysis of the status of VR today.)
VR has the potential to move on from today's niche state to a more significant market presence. We see two opportunities:
To extend the impact and significance of VR, solutions must profit from much larger market segments such as the consumer and communications markets. Until we can buy products at a Radio Shack, Dell, or Mediamarkt, VR will remain a niche market.
Two other, related fields are rapidly developing, which may help drive VR beyond the niche status:
The combination of VR, augmented reality, and wearable computers opens a wealth of new applications. In the military, the dismounted warrior will be equipped with mobile or wearable augmented reality gear to obtain additional information such as street and building names, routes, and threat locations (see http://www.ait.nrl.navy.mil/vrlab). Military headquarters will receive personal information (such as health and equipment status) and reconnaissance data. For industry, wearable intelligence enables hands-free operation and multivendor, multiproduct service for teleservice workers (see http://www.arvika.de, in German). Telecom companies are investigating location-dependent services within public cellular networks for a multitude of purposes such as mobile navigation for business locations and tourist sights or person finders. Personal applications include health monitoring and retrieving information on the fly. After all, who wouldn't want to spend some money on mobile or wearable augmented reality gear to appear smarter?