Sunday
Oct082017

The blockchain revolution

Even if you’ve never heard of blockchain, you probably would have heard of bitcoin, the world’s first decentralised digital currency (there’s no central bank involved). While bitcoin is exciting, the underlying technology that makes bitcoin possible is even more revolutionary in terms of how it can transform the way business is done. Called “blockchain”, this technology is a big deal, especially in the financial sector.

Blockchain, in a nutshell, is a distributed ledger or database that can record transactions between two (or more) parties efficiently in a verifiable, permanent and transparent way. In the case of bitcoin, the blockchain is a huge ledger that keeps track of who owns how much bitcoin. The coins themselves are not physical objects or digital files but entries in the blockchain ledger. Units of the currency are transferred from one party to another as part of a new “block” of transactions added to the existing chain (hence its name).

Each encrypted block of code contains the history of every block that came before it, together with timestamped transaction information. These encrypted blocks can never be modified and because the whole thing is decentralised, there’s no single point of failure from which records can be hacked or corrupted.

Bitcoin was just the first application that leverages on blockchain but it’s important to understand that bitcoin and blockchain are not the same thing. When it comes to digital assets, you can put literally anything on a blockchain and create a “trustless” system for transactions.

When I say “trustless” system I don’t mean one that can’t be trusted. Actually, it’s quite the opposite. Because the blockchain verifies each transaction there’s no need for a trusted middleman like a lawyer or brokers or financial institution to be involved. Trustless transactions enable two parties who do not know or trust each to do transactions with confidence.

Eliminating the middleman has profound implications on how business is currently done globally. Here are some examples of industries that will be affected by blockchain.

STOCK TRANSCATIONS

Thanks to the Internet, stock transactions can be done online and executed very quickly. However, the actual transfer of ownership of the stock will take much longer because the parties involved have no access to each other’s ledgers and thus cannot automatically verify the transactions. Intermediaries act as guarantors of the stocks as the transactions are individually updated on the ledgers. This is a slow and cumbersome process. With blockchain, where there’s no need for any middleman to verify the transfer of ownership, any transaction could be securely settled within seconds.

SMART CONTRACTS

“Smart contracts” could very well be the most transformative application of the blockchain. They basically automate payments and the transfer of assets as certain agreed-upon conditions are met. For example, a smart contract could send a payment to a seller as soon as a shipment is delivered to the customer, without any third-party intervention. Another example is a derivative could be set to be automatically paid out when a financial instrument meets a certain benchmark. Smart contracts will result in a massive reduction in the cost of enforcing contracts and making payments as the software will self-execute the instructions based on the terms of the contracts.

INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY

When it comes to artistic content, the middleman always get a huge cut of the revenues. This certainly is true of the music industry. If only the artistes could cut out the middleman effectively and get their music direct to their customers, they’d make a lot more for the music that they sell. Mycelia, a company founded by British Grammy-winning artiste Imogen Heap, has developed a blockchain-based system where songs would have smart contracts built into them. Royalties and other licensing agreements would then be executed automatically once the sale is done. There’s no music label, lawyers or financial institutions to pay. Blockchain can also be used for artwork and in fact, a new start-up called Ascribe provides a digital registry for artwork which contains information to verify authenticity, condition and ownership. Artists can basically upload digital art, watermark it and transfer it as they wish.

SUPPLY CHAIN AUDITING

Consumers are increasingly wanting to know more about the items they buy, whether for ethical grounds or health reasons. For example, someone might want to be certain that the jewellery they buy contain diamonds that are not from conflict zones. Purchasers of meat may want to know whether the livestock involved was raised in a free-range environment. Sushi restaurant chains may want to know if the seafood they purchase was harvested in a sustainable way. Blockchain allows for that as its distributed ledgers are timestamped with dates and locations and these cannot be altered and falsified.

SHARING ECONOMY

The sharing economy as exemplified by AirBnB and Uber has really upended traditional business. But these new economy companies are actually intermediaries who help aggregate suppliers who are willing to sell their excess capacity (in the form of rooms and driven cars, respectively) and take a percentage of the sale. Blockchain provides the potential for service providers to sell directly to clients without a third-party involved. Essentially, it would be a peer-to-peer sharing economy that’s decentralized.

IDENTITY MANAGEMENT

If a sharing economy as described above were to happen, identity management is crucial. Customers need to know you are who you say you are. Currently, AirBnB and Uber provide that service. When third parties are taken out of the equation, there needs to be a way to verify identities. This is also crucial for financial transactions conducted on blockchain as there’s no intermediary like a bank involved. You need to know that the other party you’re dealing with is genuine.

CHALLENGES

There’s no doubting blockchain’s revolutionary and transformative impact on the way business will be conducted in the future. However, this isn’t something that’s going to happen overnight. It may literally be decades before blockchain become very commonplace.

An experiment done at MIT a few years ago highlights a key challenge that blockchain-based systems face: people don’t understand it. In 2014, the MIT Bitcoin Club provided each of MIT’s 4494 undergraduates with US$100 in bitcoin and gave them the freedom to do as they wish with it. Some 30 per cent of the students didn’t even bother to sign up for it, while 20 per cent of those who did sign up ended up converting the bitcoin to regular cash within a few weeks. Of course those who held on to it eventually made a lot of money as the value of bitcoin subsequently skyrocketed. But what that experiment showed is that even amongst a tech-savvy, intelligent crowd there’s still apprehension about using bitcoin.

But beyond that, blockchain technology itself is still at an infancy stage. There’s still a lot more technological development that needs to be done before we can see widespread adoption. There’s also a host of regulatory and legal issues to overcome. Blockchain might be a decentralised system but buy-in from the government is still necessary if it’s to be used for legal, financial or identity management purposes.

It’s hard to say which industries or government sectors would be most impacted by blockchain. We can make educated guesses but when it comes to disruptive technologies, it’s always very hard to make accurate predictions. Take social media for instance. If you had told someone about Twitter or Facebook around the time they launched, would anyone have believed they’d become such a regular part of our daily lives? One thing’s for sure though, blockchain is no fad. It’s here to stay and will only become more relevant in time to come.

Sunday
Oct012017

The future of cinema

It wasn’t too long ago that watching a movie entailed buying a paper ticket and queueing for popcorn and a drink. Today, most of us buy our tickets online and have our phones scanned on the way in. And the food choices are far wider and better than just snacks.

But it’s not just the customer-facing front end of things that’s changing. Behind the scenes, things have changed considerably too. Movies used to be delivered on rolls of film. Now, it’s all digital which is easier for distribution. No more having to deal with canisters of film!

Digital has its downsides for cinemas though. The very fact that it’s digital means it can be streamed direct to people’s laptops and mobile devices. Cinemas could potentially be bypassed and things seem to be moving in that direction.

In many ways, the cinema industry is experiencing the same kind of disruption the music industry has been grappling with for more than a decade now. The old ways of doing things will no longer cut it and new approaches need to be developed to replace outdated ones.

Streaming

Most of the big Hollywood studios have been working on releasing movies via streaming much sooner than what’s currently the norm. Today, big releases usually take up to three months before they’re made available on Blu-ray, DVD and streaming services. Many of the top studios want that time lag reduced to between 20 to 45 days.

Six of the seven biggest studios, including Fox, Lionsgate, Paramount, Sony, Universal and Warner Bros, are having ongoing discussions with major American cinema chains like Regal and AMC to shorten the release date. The most commonly cited figure is 20 to 30 days although Warner Bros has indicated a willingness to extend it to 45 days (which is still half of the current 90 days). As for pricing, the price commonly bandied about is US$30 (RM126) although figures as high as US$50 have been mentioned.

Cinema owners are naturally against this although the studios are offering them a cut of the revenue if they agree to it. But what the cinema chains hate even more is a concept called Screening Room, which is backed by some big directors like J.J. Abrams, Steven Spielberg, Ron Howard and Peter Jackson.

Screening Room calls for the movies to be made available for viewing on the very same day they’re released in cinemas. Abrams has said that the industry has to move with the times and that this is also one way to curb piracy.

“We need to do everything we can in this age of piracy, digital technology and disruption to be thoughtful partners in the evolution of this medium… We have to adapt. It’s going to be required of all of us. We need to meet that challenge with excitement, and create solutions ­— not fear,” Abrams said in defence of Screening Room. “As the world evolves, all of us are evolving with it. We have to adapt.”

Screening Room intends to charge US$50 per movie and users have to pay $150 for a set top box to be installed first. This plan also calls for the cinema chains to get a cut of the revenues and it’s a pretty big slice (reportedly US$20 out of the US$50) and each customer will also get two free cinema tickets to see the movie at the cinema (so, cinemas can still earn income from selling them food and drinks).

In theory, this scheme might not cannibalise cinema revenues as this service is targeted at those who would not have gone to the cinemas anyway. So, it’s actually extra income. But the cinema chains aren’t convinced and are opposing it vehemently. Industry bigshots like director James Cameron and producer Jon Landau are firmly against this idea as well. Both are big advocates of the cinematic experience.

“Both Jim (Cameron) and I remain committed to the sanctity of the in-theatre experience. For us, from both a creative and financial standpoint, it is essential for movies to be offered exclusively in theatres for their initial release,” said Landau. “We don’t understand why the industry would want to provide audiences an incentive to skip the best form to experience the art that we work so hard to create. To us, the in-theatre experience is the wellspring that drives our entire business, regardless of what other platforms we eventually play on and should eventually play on. No one is against playing in the home, but there’s a sequencing of events that leads to it. The in-theatre communal experience is very special.”

The cinemas will probably be able to delay these developments but they won’t be able to stop it. The popularity of streaming services like Netflix has made it obvious that it’s just a matter of time before consumers will have the option of watching movies online soon after their release or even on the same day. So what can cinema chains do?

Immersive experience

If you look at what the likes of Cameron and Landau are advocating, it’s the overall experience of going to a cinema. As such, cinemas should be looking at making that experience so distinct and superior to the convenience of watching that same movie at home, that there’ll be consumers who’ll always prefer going to the cinema.

Offering a more immersive viewing experience is one key differentiator. Anyone who has tried IMAX knows what a difference its large screen and superior sound system makes especially for action- and special-effects-driven movies.

Barco Escape is a three-screen video format that offers a kind of panoramic experience that goes beyond what IMAX can offer. Star Trek Beyond had a special version which expanded the storytelling across the three screens for key moments in the movie. All in, about 20 minutes of the movie was optimised for the Barco Escape format.

Then there’s Magi, a new system that captures images in 3D and “4K” ultra-high resolution and displays the resulting frames at five times the usual rate. It’s designed to create movie experiences that are more immersive than regular 3D or giant-screen IMAX.

No home theatre system, however sophisticated, will be able to compete with the likes of IMAX, Barco Escape or Magi. So that may be the kind of thing that cinema chains will have to invest more heavily into.

Kinetic seating is another way to provide audience members with a unique experience that they’d not be able to get from watching a movie at home. There are already some so-called 4D auditoriums where seats move and other effects like wind, water and even odour come into play, although these are very much a novelty at the moment. Perhaps the wind, water and smell aspect is a bit over the top, but the notion of moving seats that make you feel like you’re part of the action is a practical way to enhance the immersive experience.

Luxury service

Cinema food traditionally comprised snacks like candy and popcorn and a soft drink. That’s all starting to change. In the US, a growing number of cinemas are offering lush seats and food options that equal a full restaurant experience. Audience members can actually dine in comfort within the cinema itself.

Obviously with proper dinner fare, the amount spent at the cinema will be much higher and such luxury offerings are targeted at an affluent demographic. But there’s sufficient interest in this that AMC, one of the largest cinema chains in the US, is converting about half of its 600 plus cinemas to become dine-in establishments. Cinemark, another American chain, has already converted about half of its 340 outlets to feature enhanced food options.

iPic Theaters offers a wine-and-dine concession stand that features a cinema-friendly (meaning suitable to eat in the dark) chef-driven menu from acclaimed Chef Sherry Yard, prepared to order for guests to take into the cinema hall. It even offers an assortment of cocktails, beer and wine contained in special Cocktail Shakers so they can be brought into the cinema.

Experience vs Convenience

Cinemas as we know it are changing. They have to if they want to weather the digital onslaught. That’s why you’re seeing new, more immersive formats emerging and why cinemas are investing in top-notch sound systems. It’s also why some cinemas are offering luxury chairs and restaurant-quality food and beverage options.

Ultimately, it’s about experience versus convenience. There’s no way cinemas can compete on convenience with movies that are streamed directly to the desktop, laptop or handheld device. But they can offer a rich experience that go beyond just delivering a way for people to watch a movie. It’s the key to their survival.

Sunday
Sep242017

Will iPhone X lead the way?

It was about a decade ago that Apple released the first iPhone. I happened to be working for a research unit of an international telecommunications company at the time and I could still remember the excitement about it at the time.

The iPhone was a game changer. It marked the beginning of the smartphone era. Android (by Google) came soon after that but it was Apple that was the innovator. Especially in the early days, much of what could be seen on Android phones were just copies of iPhone features.

Of course things have changed a lot over the past 10 years and actually today, much of the innovation seen in smartphone technology have been on Android phones rather than iPhones.

While the former has been launching interesting new features, the latter has been releasing new versions with better processors, better screens and better cameras. Improvements, for sure, but not innovations.

Will the iPhone X turn things around and put Apple in the driver’s seat again? The company certainly thinks so. It referred to the iPhone X as “the future of the smartphone.”

But if you look at the dizzying array of new features it has, you’ll find that much of it isn’t all that new after all. Variations of those features can be found on Android phones which are already in the market.

At 5.8 inches, the iPhone X’s screen size is the biggest of any iPhone yet but there are plenty of Android phones with larger screen sizes than that. Then there’s the marvellous OLED (also referred to as AMOLED) display which offers better colours and more energy savings compared to the traditional LCD display. Samsung has used OLED for years. Wireless charging? That’s also something already available in the market for some time now.

These types of features — though not new to the industry — are new to the iPhone. Taken together as a whole and made available via iPhone X, such enhancements should excite Apple’s fan base. But will iPhone X impact the development of future smartphones?

Likely so, and that’s because of two new features: facial recognition and augmented reality (AR). Granted, neither of these technologies is new for mobile phones. Again, there are other phones out there that have already featured these in some form. But the way Apple is using them will be a game-changer.

FACIAL RECOGNITION

Face ID is a way to unlock your iPhone and also to pay for something online. As is usually the case, Apple wasn’t the pioneer for incorporating facial recognition software into phones. Microsoft had something called Windows Hello for the Lumia 950 phone which allowed unlocking of the phone through facial recognition. Samsung later came out with something similar called Face Unlock.

So this technology has been around. But Apple is introducing some really cool things you can do with it. Take, for example, surface notification. The iPhone X’s front-facing camera can show you notifications once it recognises your face. It will also keep the screen lit when it recognises that you’re reading something on the phone. And, it can automatically lower the volume of an alarm or ringer if you happen to be staring at the screen when these things go off.

All very neat but by far the most impactful functionality will be the ability to pay for things through facial recognition. It’s worth noting that Samsung’s Face Unlock isn’t secure enough for mobile payments but Apple’s Face ID is.

How Face ID works is that it scans your face with 30,000 invisible infrared dots to determine that it’s actually you and not some picture of you or a mask of you. According to Apple, it also utilises machine learning to adapt to changes in your appearance. Apparently even if you forget to shave for a few days and start to grow a stubble or if you change your hairstyle, iPhone X will still be able to recognise you.

The system is so sophisticated that the chances of someone tricking Face ID are one in a million, according to Apple. That’s a pretty impressive statistic but whether Face ID is as secure as Apple claims it to be will be tested in the months to come as it makes its way to millions of new owners. You can be sure any glitches of some kind will be widely covered by the media.

You can also be sure that all the other phone makers are now scrambling to come up with advanced biometrics so that their phones can also offer the same kind of secure facial recognition functionality as Face ID.

AUGMENTED REALITY

Apple first made clear that it was entering the Augmented Reality (AR) arena at its Worldwide Developers Conference in June when it unveiled ARKit, a set of tools that makes it easier for developers to incorporate AR into their apps. (AR is a technology that allows the phone’s camera to mix virtual and physical objects).

Apple has confirmed its commitment to AR by stating that iPhone X was purpose-built for AR apps with its cameras calibrated for AR and with its facial recognition software making it easier for apps like Snapchat to map virtual masks onto the owner’s face for selfies.

AR, like its cousin VR (virtual reality, which I wrote about recently), has been around for a long time but hasn’t really taken off in a big way yet. This will probably change with the launch of the iPhone X. In the years to come, hundreds of millions of people will own AR-capable devices.

ARKit coupled with iPhone’s depth-sensing camera technologies could lead to revolutionary new developments in mobile AR applications. Initially we’ll see great enhancements in the gaming and selfie areas. Pokemon Go is the best example of AR in use in the mobile gaming industry and Snapchat’s filters are an example of AR being used for self-expression. But in time, AR will definitely become integrated into many other types of apps as well.

What kind of killer app for AR will emerge, we don’t know yet. But what we do know is that these app developers will now be able to use the camera, accelerometer and gyroscope in a more precise way than ever before.

You can count on some big breakthroughs to emerge from the tens of thousands of developers out there. Some of them are likely to become as regularly used as Whatsapp or Waze are today (for all we know, AR might be integrated into Whatsapp and Waze too). AR-enabled apps will be become such a part of our daily lives that we won’t even wonder at how incredibly advanced and useful they are.

Android will naturally dive deeply into AR as a direct result of what Apple is doing with ARKit (Android’s version of this is called ARCore). Apple has one advantage though. It controls both the hardware and software and can thus more seamlessly integrate these two than can Android as their phones are made by various companies.

Most Android phones function the same way but there are subtle differences, enough that there’s a learning curve involved when you switch from one Android brand to another. In contrast, there’s only one company making the iPhone.

The iPhone X will be available in early November and the base model is priced at a whopping US$999 (RM4,193). That’s a pretty hefty price tag for a premium product like an iPhone. There’ll be many takers and there’ll also be many who’ll hesitate because of the price. But whether you are an iPhone owner or not, the phones you buy in the future will have features similar to it, especially in the areas of facial recognition and AR.

Sunday
Sep172017

How about listening to a book?

WHEN we hear the phrase “e-book” we tend to think of digital books that you can read on a laptop, tablet or even mobile phone. These are digital replicas of print books with some added functionality like the ability to increase the size of the font, bookmarking and keyword search.

People normally don’t think of audiobooks as e-books though technically they are a kind of electronic book. You might be surprised to learn that for many years running now, audiobooks have been the fastest growing segment of the publishing sector.

In recent years, both the number of titles produced and the sales of audiobooks have boomed. Total sales of audiobooks in 2016 rose 18.2 per cent over 2015, to an estimated US$2.1 billion (RM8.83 billion), while unit sales did even better, according to the Audio Publishers Association (USA). It reported that unit sales rose 33.9 per cent, to 89.5 million.

Such statistics are convincing but if you wanted a simpler sign of audiobooks’ growing importance, just look at the fact that Kobo, a leading international e-book retailer, has just finally added audiobooks to its offerings. Amazon has long been associated with audiobooks through its subsidiary Audible but Kobo has been an audiobook hold-out for a long time. Until this month, that is. Now audiobooks are part of its iOS app catalogue.

The app has a built-in audiobook player that offers various cool functionalities such as the ability to change the narration speed, check the remaining time and set a sleep timer. Initially this service will be available in the UK, US, Australia and New Zealand but I’d expect that eventually, it will be rolled out all over the world.

You also know audiobooks have arrived when many Hollywood A-List stars are narrating them. And we’re not just talking about famous celebrities narrating their own biographies or memoirs but the works of other authors. Jake Gyllenhaal, for example, reads the The Great Gatsby while Tim Robbins reads Fahrenheit 451. Not to be outdone, Reese Witherspoon reads Harper Lee’s hit novel, Go Set a Watchman while Johnny Depp reads portions of Keith Richard’s biography, Life. Other big name celebrity narrators include Helen Mirren, Colin Firth, Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Angela Bassett, Cuba Gooding Jr, Whoopi Goldberg and Samuel L. Jackson.

Audiobooks’ popularity

While everyone acknowledges the popularity of audiobooks, industry watchers aren’t able to pinpoint the exact reason for this. Rather than just one factor, it’s probably a confluence of elements — celebrity narration, convenience and exposure due to podcasts, among others — that have resulted in the rise of audiobooks.

Of all the factors, convenience is probably the biggest plus point for audiobooks. You can listen to audiobooks while doing other things. That in itself is quite revolutionary when it comes to consuming books. When you read a print book or an e-book, it’s practically impossible to do anything else. This is why you hear the common refrain, “I don’t have time to read books”.

Our lives are so busy these days that the only way to consume content is to do it while multi-tasking. With audiobooks, you can listen to them while commuting in a car, walking your dog, jogging on a treadmill or riding a stationary bike, washing the dishes or ironing clothes.

Of course all of this is facilitated by advances in technology — the technology relating to audiobooks themselves and the technology involving the player. Audiobooks were known initially (this was a long, long time ago) as books on vinyl. Yes, they actually had audiobooks on vinyl records. Then it became books on tape. Then books on CDs. Today, audiobooks come in the form of a digital file which can be easily downloaded.

The player can be an iPod or some other MP3 device. But most people probably listen to their audiobooks on their mobile phones. With smartphones now being so common place, it’s no exaggeration to say that most people today carry some kind of audiobook player on them at all times.

The popularity of podcasts has also helped audiobooks in a couple of ways. Firstly, it gets people used to the notion of downloading a long audio file and listening to it on their MP3 player or mobile phone. When you’ve listened to a lot of podcasts, it’s not a stretch to start listening to books.

Secondly, many of the most popular podcasts are sponsored by Audible. If you’re a fan of podcasts, you’re probably familiar with the first season of Serial, a 12-episode crime programme about a murder. That podcast was a runaway success story with over five million downloads and streams. Slightly more than halfway through its dozen episodes, Serial featured a new sponsor: Audible.

This introduced millions of people to this Amazon-owned audiobook company, which offers both a subscription and an a la carte service. Audible also runs ads in other popular podcast programmes such as Slate podcasts, Radiolab and WTF with Marc Maron.

Although Audible started off as a retailer of audiobooks, it’s now a producer of original audio content as well. It has also introduced innovations such as “Clips” which allows users to share 45-second excerpts from their favourite audiobooks with friends via text messaging, e-mail and social media.

Creating audiobooks

All these things combined have made e-books popular with consumers. But audiobooks are also popular with publishers. Unlike print books, where there’s an additional cost with every copy of a book printed, audiobook files sit on a server so there’s very little incremental cost even if a million orders were to suddenly come in (there’d be some bandwidth costs but no printing, storage or distribution costs to the publisher).

Audiobooks also allow publishers to reach a market that it traditionally cannot penetrate: the non-readers. We all know of people who don’t have time for it — it might actually include us — and we also know those who simply don’t like reading. Then, there are those who have difficulty reading such as people with dyslexia. And finally there are those who can’t read at all, namely blind people. Audiobooks are accessible to all non-readers: The ones who don’t have time, who don’t like to read, who have difficulty reading and who cannot read.

Of course not all publishers are into audiobooks. While it’s starting to become quite commonplace in the West, most Malaysian publishers do not make audio versions of the books they publish. So what’s a Malaysian author to do if he or she wants their book to be made available as an audiobook?

In typical publishing contracts, the terms of publishing cover specific formats and are usually not all-encompassing. Just because you sign up for a print book to be published doesn’t mean you automatically sign away your rights for an e-book or an audiobook. Although a publisher could include such terms, the author can ask for these to be removed and reserve the right to do their own e-book or audiobook.

Authors who have retained such rights can undertake to create their own audiobooks. If an author doesn’t have experience in digital recording and editing — which I expect to be the case with most authors — then it makes sense for them to engage a professional to help create the audiobook.

Professional voice-over artists used to work for formal production houses but these days, thanks again to advances in technology and the Internet, many are freelancers who work from home. Their rates are also far more affordable than it used to be during the era of studio-based narrators. There are also many audiobook production companies that offer affordable rates. You can easily search for these online.

Although the surge in popularity of audiobooks was not something the publishing industry anticipated — most publishers thought e-books would be the next big thing — in retrospect it makes perfect sense that audiobooks would be a big hit. After all, who doesn’t like to listen to a good story?

Sunday
Sep102017

The Future is Virtually Here

There’s nothing like the real thing. But what if the real thing isn’t accessible or affordable or practical? A virtual version would be the next best thing. That’s the promise of virtual reality (VR).

There are many technical definitions of virtual reality. However in layman’s terms, it’s basically a computer-generated environment that’s a realistic simulation of the actual thing. You see it all the time in movies and not just science fiction ones.

If you’re a fan of James Bond, you’d probably recall a funny scene in Die Another Day when Miss Moneypenny, the secretary to Bond’s boss, finally fulfils her wish of kissing the dashing hero. But we find out that it was just a VR simulation when she’s interrupted by Q, the gadget master in charge of research and development.

THE FUTURE OF VR

In the real world, VR tends to be associated with games. That’s because the earliest and most common use of this technology has been for games. Unfortunately, the hardware required for VR games (Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, Sony Playstation VR) is both pricey and a bit complicated to set up. To make matters worse, there isn’t a whole lot of content available. VR games are niche. Therefore it’s unsurprising then that VR has yet to take the world by storm.

Lowe’s “Holoroom How To” takes the VR experience to another level.

Is VR destined to be dumped into the dustbin of technology trends like 3D TV, which held a lot of promise but never really took off? On the surface, there are a lot of similarities. For example, both require consumers to don some kind of eyewear. And as mentioned earlier, content is in short supply. But there’s one crucial difference: 3D TV technology is used for a singular purpose which is to deliver a 3D experience for shows. In contrast, VR technology can be used for a variety of purposes across many industries — not just gaming.

Many top tech companies including Samsung, Sony and Google are big believers of VR. Another true believer is Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook fame. His company paid a whopping US$2 billion (RM8.42 billion) to acquire Oculus in 2014!

Although VR has not exactly taken off yet, Zuckerberg is convinced that there’s a big future ahead of VR in the long run. He was quoted last year as saying: “We are betting that Virtual Reality is going to be an important technology. I am pretty confident about this. I honestly don’t know is how long it will take to build this ecosystem. It could be five years, it could be 10, 15 or 20 years. My guess is that it will be at least 10. It took 10 years to go from building the initial Smartphone to reaching the mass market. BlackBerry came out in 2003 and it didn’t get to about a billion units until 2013. So I can’t imagine it would be much faster for VR.”

It’s not clear exactly what Zuckerberg has in mind for VR but you can be sure he’s not only thinking of games. Just as Facebook permeates our personal, working and social lives so will VR, eventually.

If you think about the potential of VR, which allows you to have a realistic, immersive experience just by donning some computerized equipment, you can easily imagine how it will become embedded into every consumer sector out there. Let’s look at a few real-life examples of VR which will give you a taste of things to come.

NEWS: THE NEW YORK TIMES

News is an obvious sector that will be impacted by VR because of the experience it can deliver. About two years ago, The New York Times launched a VR project called The Displaced that allowed readers to experience the harrowing journey children displaced by war go through.

It’s been estimated that some 30 million children have been driven from their homes because of war. The Displaced told the story of three of those children — from Sudan, Syria and Ukraine — and detailed their tragic stories in an immersive documentary that put viewers inside refugee camps and villages, where they could witness first-hand the lives of these refugees.

The VR film was available for download for mobile app and Google Cardboard, a remarkably cheap device that converts Android smartphones into VR headsets. In conjunction with the release of this VR film, NYT distributed one million Google Cardboard viewers free of charge to home-delivery subscribers.

NYT has since gone on to create other VR films such as The Land of Salt And Fire which allows readers to be transported to “the hottest place on earth, where camel caravans move salt across the vast plains, and active geothermal zones turn into a landscape of psychedelic colours” and The Antarctica Collection, which consists of four VR films that explore the highest, driest and coldest continent on Earth.

RETAIL: LOWE'S

Lowe’s is a big home improvement company with well over 2,000 stores across the USA, Canada and Mexico. It uses VR technology in its key stores in Boston and Canada for “Holoroom How To” — a VR set-up which allows customers to learn how to “do it yourself” when it comes to tasks like tiling a bathroom or painting a fence.

Previously, Lowe’s had used VR as a means to help customers visualise their kitchen and bath renovations. “Holoroom How To” takes the VR experience to another level. Lowe’s research had shown that not all customers had the confidence or skills needed to embark on DIY projects.

To experience “Holoroom How To”, customers wear a HTC Vive headset and a set of controllers. The simulation walks the customer through each aspect of the task at hand until they complete the task. The haptic feedback, such as the simulated vibration of the drill, makes the experience feel very realistic without the messiness or cost of an actual physical DIY experiment.

CARS:VOLVO

What if you want to test-drive a Volvo XC90 SUV but there’s not a Volvo showroom nearby? Or what if you have no intention of buying one but you would just like the experience of driving it? Volvo has made this possible through VR.

Volvo Reality places you in the driver’s seat and takes you on a drive through the countryside. You can view the stunning landscape outside or check out the accessories and interiors of the car. As you look around, you can see everything you would see if you were really driving an actual car.

Google Cardboard, a remarkably cheap device that converts Android smartphones into VR headsets.

Like the NYT, Volvo uses the low-cost Google Cardboard platform, so that everybody can experience it. You don’t have to own an expensive Oculus Rift or HTC Vive. All you have to do is download a Volvo Reality app and insert your phone into the Google Cardboard “headset” and you’re ready to go on your virtual drive.

For seriously hardcore car lovers, this will never replace the real thing but for the rest of us, it might actually be better than the real thing. When you’re physically driving a car, you have to pay full attention to the road. When you’re doing it in VR you can look all around the car and spend some time admiring its stylish interiors without worrying about being in an accident. It’s all safe.

ENDLESS POSSIBILITIES

I’ve highlighted just three real-life examples of how VR can be used in different industries. There are plenty of examples from other industries. You can easily imagine how it could be utilised for educational, medical and entertainment purposes, among other things. Actually, there probably isn’t any industry VR can’t touch in a positive way. The basic premise is simple. Put on a headset to enter a whole new environment. The possibilities are endless.