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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 October 2018

UAE well set for virtual reality revolution

While VR location-based entertainment is big, the technology is also getting traction in the business and the public sector

TN VR for business - Hassan Kiyany. Photo Credit Leo James
TN VR for business - Hassan Kiyany. Photo Credit Leo James

I’m under attack from hordes of zombies and I’m fighting to survive.

I shoot one after another but their numbers are increasing as they swarm towards me, growling and drooling as my field of vision fills with ominous green scratch marks. It’s only minutes before I wave my plastic gun in the air in surrender, and staff at Dubai’s Hub Zero gaming centre relieve me of my virtual reality (VR) headset and get me out of the game.

While my shrieking had drawn a group of concerned school children to the booth, the experience is one an increasing number of people want to enjoy.

“There is definitely growth and more interest in the market for VR and AR but still, it is the public sector driving it here as of now,” says Shujat Mirza, Dubai Chapter president of the global VR/AR Association, which supports VR and AR stakeholders in the region and has hosted forums at events at Dubai Technology Entrepreneur Centre and ioTX Dubai.

I’m told I’m not the first person to have made a show of themselves while experiencing one of the truly interactive virtual reality games at Hub Zero. VR immerses users in a 360-degree simulated reality environment and it’s surprisingly believable. The VR experience is even more intense at Ghostbusters-themed THE VOID, which recently moved to Hub Zero from The Beach, and incorporates sound, touch and smell into the experience.

Satisfaction

This sort of VR entertainment experience is often people’s introduction to this immersive technology, not least because the business world has not yet fully cottoned on to its benefits.

When VRstudios, the US firm that created the turnkey, fully interactive VR attractions at Hub Zero, first started, it found location-based entertainment (LBE) industries the most receptive sector.

“We found that many commercial enterprises will take time to evolve their operations to include immersive technologies and truly understand the impact VR can have on lowering cost, improving profit, shortening time to market, reducing change orders, and improving customer satisfaction and competitiveness,” says T Ron Davis, VRstudios’ chief marketing officer. “Meanwhile, the location-based entertainment world was beating on our door. LBEs understand the value and see it as a key element of bringing guests to locations to experience something they cannot get at home, in many cases something exclusive to the venue.”

It’s also an easy way to renew the experience of the customers, says Jean-Marc Bled, general manager, entertainment zone in leisure and entertainment operations at Meraas Holding, which runs Hub Zero: “Imagine if you have three or four different media then your customers can come three or four times, for a minimal cost because, of course, changing a media costs much less than changing a full ride or attraction.”

In the UAE, LBE is creating a buzz around VR but the technology is also getting traction in the business and the public sector, as reflected in the number of VR and augmented reality (AR) products (which lay digital images over the user's environment) showcased during February’s Innovation Month.

Experience

The market for VR and AR in the Middle East and Africa market is expected to increase from a value of $181.59 million in 2017 to $6 billion in 2020, according to international analysts International Data Corporation (IDC). While until now, consumer spending has accounted for most of that, IDC predicts that from this year, the consumer sector will give way to B2B segments including distribution and manufacturing.

“During Innovation Month, the Ministry of Climate Change and Environment used VR to educate the public on how our environment has changed and will change, through an immersive and interactive experience," says Mr Mirza. "The content of the VR experience displayed the past, present, and future of UAE.”

Meanwhile, Dubai Electricity and Water Authority (Dewa) has enlisted leading AR solution and hardware provider DAQRI to develop a "smart" helmet and glasses for its engineers, using AR software created by Dubai-based company Takeleap.

There are myriad business applications of VR, from car test drives to remote surgery, but Mr Mirza sees the most potential in the gaming, entertainment and real estate sectors in terms of growth, content and reach. He also sees promise in the education sector, retail and tourism.

Consumer brands are starting to get in on the act. Emirates and Etihad both have 360 VR products, and in 2016 hotel group Jumeirah introduced a VR app that allows guests to take an AR/VR tour of its properties using Google Cardboard goggles and their smartphones. More recently Ikea launched VR pop-up stores in Kuwait, Jordan and Morocco, to create an immersive shopping experience for customers who can’t visit bricks and mortar Ikea stores, and claims that has increased footfall by 19 per cent.

Adoption

Part of VR’s growth is down to the reduced cost of the hardware required, making it much more accessible to developers, down from tens of thousands of dollars to hundreds. VR equipment is also now more affordable for consumers, and consumer awareness has increased as a result. By attaching a VR headset like the Google Cardboard to their smartphone, anyone can create a VR or AR experience for as little as $15. Spending on AR/VR hardware elements is forecast by IDC to grow from $118m in 2016 to reach more than $3.2 billion in 2020.

It is consumer interest that is set to drive the industry, says Mr Mirza. “B2C will allow mass adoption and B2B will attract special projects, which will give the VR industry a boost and that necessary PR. Enterprise solutions will drive investments, and consumer-driven content will create acceptance and reach.”

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Content is also crucial to driving the development of VR technology, he says. “In the hardware aspect, we already have global players that have launched products and are constantly upgrading, so we should just embrace and import from the already established big players but the key for market adoption is regional content. There are UAE-based VR filmmakers who are working on projects and have already created some amazing story-telling.”

Hassan Kiyany is one of these UAE content providers. He runs an agency that develops content for AR and VR, and most recently developed an immersive tour of UAE schools for the Ministry of Education.

“We've been working with some key government and private sectors helping them embrace VR in their marketing efforts and public awareness,” he says. “I believe VR/AR provides a new dimension on how we can engage, educate and entertain audiences.”

Cutting-edge

Government initiatives are helping to push the technology in the UAE, says Ashwin Venkatchari, research director for the Middle East, Africa and Turkey, for IDC. He gives the example of the Dubai Future Accelerator, a government programme in which cutting-edge technology companies from the West develop a product to address a specific challenge for a government entity, that they can then go on to launch in the business sector in the UAE.

It’s inevitable that Dubai adopts VR, says Mr Mirza, in order to fit with its smart vision. “I think VR and AR together will need to be embraced with a lot of attention here in UAE. If Dubai has to be the smartest city in the world VR, MR [mixed reality] and AI [artificial intelligence] must be at the core of it.”

He says the hype alone has inspired government entities into “talking and embracing VR as a technology which is going to improve human communication, create new career opportunities and attract investments”.

The challenge to developing VR in the UAE is getting big global players including HTC Vive, Apple or Google to take the market a bit more seriously, says Mr Mirza. He suggests they have an R&D presence in the region, to help groom local content talent to galvanise regional solutions which will encourage market adoption. The fact that US AR/VR company EON Reality, which offers products such as its Virtual Trainer, has opened a studio and training facility in collaboration with Higher College of Technology Dubai is a great step towards building a skilled workforce in the next years, he says.

The market also needs to evolve into a place where content or VR solutions for any sector can be made here by local players rather than copying what is being done in in the US or in the UK, says Mr Mirza. “Creative and imaginative minds who understand the applicability, usability and power of VR technology need to be given a platform to showcase their talent.” He says the annual GITEX Technology Week does this to an extent but the VR/AR industry needs a dedicated event.

Massive

He also suggests the region needs more support for local VR/AR start-ups which are creating regional content and coming up with good solutions for brands and corporations.

It’s something that Mr Kiyany has identified, which is why he recently kick started a hands-on storytelling MR lab to introduce young talent to the MR/VR/AR arena.

“We need more dedicated VR/AR labs, events and gatherings, to exchange the work and knowledge among everyone,” he says. “Companies would learn the best use of it. We lack access to the latest technology, hardware and software in general compared to the West. But at the same time we’ve got huge interest from everyone in the region to push for it.”

Mr Bled says once VR takes hold, progress could be rapid, especially in the games industry. “By 2020, I can see massive progress in this technology and streamlining as well. In the video game business it’s going to be massive,” he says. “Once really big players like XBox or Sony or Microsoft invest big money to do a proper VR game, it’s going to be a game changer.