VRguy podcast Episode 5: Francesco Radicati, Ovum, on mobile VR and where VR will be used at Home

My guest is Francesco Radicati, Senior Analyst at Ovum. This episode was recorded on Mar 24, 2016

Francecso and I discuss form factors for mobile VR, where VR will be used at home, the parallels between Web, Mobile and VR and more.

Francesco is a Senior Analyst with Informa Telecoms & Media, focusing on digital operator strategies and the startup ecosystem in Silicon Valley. His areas of interest include social media, app ecosystems and OTT content for fixed and mobile broadband, as well as handset financing and Net neutrality.

Francesco joined Informa Telecoms & Media in July 2011 as a member of the Europe team. Prior to that, he was assistant editor for the Regulatory Affairs Journals, which was part of Informa Healthcare. Francesco was previously a researcher at Nicholas Hall & Company, a consultancy specializing in consumer healthcare.

Francesco holds a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University in New York.

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Interview transcript

Yuval Boger (VRguy):      Hello Francesco and welcome to the program.

Francesco:          Hi, Yuval. Thanks for having me.

VRguy:  Good to speak with you again. Would you mind introducing yourself and tell us a little bit about what you do.

Francesco:          Yes. My name is Francesco Radicati. I’m a Senior Analyst at Ovum, focusing on internet of things, consumer technology, investments, and also computer vision, virtual reality, augmented reality, and 3D cameras, 3D sensing cameras.

VRguy:  Excellent. Since you’re focused on the hardware, there’s one thing I’m curious to know and I’m sure others are. When you look at VR hardware today, certainly made a lot of improvements, screens are getting better, optics are getting better, hand sensors are pretty much in place, position-tracking. What do you think is the next thing that is important for an excellent VR or AR experience, in terms of hardware.

Francesco:          Battery life.

VRguy:  Battery life. Okay, and how about PC-based systems where battery is not an issue, the tethered situation. What’s next there?

Francesco:          Well, I think that it will continue to be improvements in processing power, syncing the image for both eyes, and making sure that the picture is looking good and that it isn’t making people sick, and that it isn’t draining too much power. As you say for a tethered headset is maybe less important, but it’s still an issue. Also, in a sort of not using too much bandwidth.

VRguy:  So, on the un-tethered one, I’m guessing battery life will improve because some of the chip makers are making GPUs that are more efficient. So that the phone doesn’t overheat and can last longer. What would be your target for battery life on a mobile solution?

Francesco:          At the moment, the figure that I’ve heard for VR experiences seems to be thirty minutes. I think you want to get to a point where you can watch a full hour-long TV show, on an as yet hypothetical VR version of Netflix or even a full movie.

VRguy:  Okay, so you would be shooting for the two-hour VR experience, give or take.

Francesco:          Yeah, I think so. Obviously, that will depend on how well a person can stand it. As I said, not making people sick is going to be a very key part of that.

VRguy:  Of course. So, having touched a little on both tethered and un-tethered experiences, I wanted to ask you about form factors. We have the PC-based form factor and then the mobile form factor, where you’re basically take an otherwise perfectly good phone and put it in a holster for a VR experience. Do you see additional form factors in VR coming to play? For instance, phone without the phone functionality? Basically, a phone-like device that’s integrated into a headset?

Francesco:          Yeah, we have been seeing products like that. Let’s see, Gameface Labs, AuraVisor. They have products like that. Google apparently has a phone-less, un-tethered headset in the works. I will say that at the moment, it seems like people are essentially taking the processor or other hardware out of the phone and putting it into a stand-alone headset. I question whether that really is a separate form factor from, for example, the Gear VR.

VRguy:  I think the motivation would be to lose some weight and save some money, right? If you need phone components, but you don’t need the phone, then maybe you don’t need the 4G modem. Maybe you don’t need the touchscreen, maybe you don’t need the aluminum casing to protect it, because it is already enclosed in something else.

Francesco:          No, I agree with that. I’m looking at it from the point of view of just the actual hardware. You’re right, but I do think that in the particulars, it maybe isn’t that different from the phone-based VR headsets.

VRguy:  Okay. I got it. Let’s assume we’ve got all these devices. I know that some of your work has been around content delivery and app ecosystems. One thing I wanted to ask you is whether you just see parallels from web and mobile going into VR. “Oh, we need security. We need advertising. We need app stores.” Is there anything else that might be new to VR that we haven’t seen before?

Francesco:          With VR, I find it hard to say at this moment. Until we really see what people do with it when they get their hands on it. I find it really hard to see it outside of the development cycle of the web or of smartphones. You mentioned app stores. I think everybody’s really scrambling to get their app stores on to their VR ecosystems. From that point of view, I don’t really think so just yet. I think it’s too early to tell, rather. For AR, I think that it’s slightly different in that we will be getting … I think we can expect to see more applications where your interacting with the physical world. I look at the acquisition of Qualcomm’s Vuforia AR platform by PTC’s ThingWorx’s  Internet of Things Division to marry the two technologies together. I think that that’s really where the interesting kind of ground-breaking work is going to be done.

VRguy:  A lot of attention has been lavished on gaming on the consumer side and there’s certainly been reports and case studies in enterprises of VR, of AR particularly in the warehouse and so-on. Where do you see the next key application? Is there a killer app that you’ve identified and you’re willing to share with us?

Francesco:          I don’t know that there is just yet. I think that going back to my point earlier. When we see what people are doing with it. I think it will become clear. There was a Wired article that I read from a couple of years ago that even questioned the need for a killer app. So far, at the moment, what we’re seeing is gaming and consuming content for AR, more training. I think that, like I said, we need more time to see how people are using it and when it gets a little bit more cheaper, more accessible. The parallel, I think, is smartphones killer app was not so much anything like surfing the web or taking pictures or playing games. It was the fact that you could essentially turn the smartphone into something else. Whether that was a flute or a spirit level or any number of things. I think that, if you can find some way for AR or VR to become the killer enabler, that will be the killer app.

VRguy:  I was just on a panel at the Game Developer’s Conference. We were discussing killer apps. One of the things that came up is social. How VR could potentially facilitate a shared social experience, even when you’re physically far away. How much do you see that happening?

Francesco:          I think that that will definitely be an important component. It was one of the first things that Mark Zuckerberg mentioned when Facebook bought Oculus. Definitely, that will be important. It will replace your GoToMeeting software. I don’t know if I call that necessarily a killer app because I feel like that’s essentially just a better way to do what we do right now on Skype or on the web or something like that.

VRguy:  That’s a good point. Maybe by itself it does not motivate a whole lot of people to get VR just for that application. Rather, if they already have a device, they might use it for social purposes as well.

Francesco:          Exactly.

VRguy:  When you think about VR at the home, where is it used? Is it used in the living room for family experience? Is it used in the teenager’s room for gaming? Is there one place that you see it being used more than others?

Francesco:          I think, for the time being, we’re seeing it in the teenager’s room or in the parent’s room for gaming or watching content on their own. There’s this image of the family with the central TV set and the kids off watching Netflix or iTunes or whatever on their tablet or smartphone. I think that the first thing that VR could replace is that tablet or smartphone. I think that it won’t really come into the living room until they figure out, getting back to the social thing, some way for the family to experience the same content together in an interconnected way.

VRguy:  In that regards, an augmented reality headset, would allow you to do that. People say, “Oh, I’m watching a sports game and I see my fantasy scores on my individual headset.” Not everyone needs to see them, perhaps. Some of the cable providers, there’s a set-top box at home. I think for many years people were saying, “Oh, this is going to be the media hub. This is how you’re going to get movies and internet and everything else.” Do you see efforts from the cable providers to turn this set-top box into some VR hub?

Francesco:          Not yet. Surely they will be looking into it. As soon as they see whether the technology is a hit or not.

VRguy:  You and I live this market. For most people, it’s still a little bit early.

Francesco:          I think so, yeah.

VRguy:  One thing I wanted to talk about in this early stage of the market is the importance of standards. Right now, you can write a game for an HTC Vive and it’s probably not going to work with other devices. The input devices, the HMDs, and soon the output devices are not yet really interchangeable. How do you see standards in VR? Are they necessary? Are they necessary at this stage? Is this something that we should just wait a couple of years and then try to standardize something?

Francesco:          The first thing is, I would question that it is so difficult to port between headsets. I was reading an article on PC Gamer that was essentially talking about that. The fact that the Unity and Unreal engines have built VR support. It seems like the studios and developers are taking that into account. One of the things that I read that was a difference was the reference point that each headset starts from. One that starts from the head as kind of the zero coordinate, another that puts the zero coordinate elsewhere. What I was reading there seemed to indicate that they didn’t think it was that much of an issue. From reading that and some of the other stuff that I’ve seen, it seems like it’s kind of a question of porting between headsets the way you would between game consoles. If you have a game that’s on the PlayStation 4, there doesn’t seem to be much real technical reason why you can’t also have it on the Xbox.

VRguy:  I was more focused on after the fact. When you buy a word processor today, you’re pretty much assured that it’s going to work with the printer you buy next year.

Francesco:          Of course.

VRguy:  Because Windows or Mac have taken care of the driver layer. I’m not sure we’re there yet with VR. If, I buy an Oculus game today, will it work on whatever headset comes out next year? Without having to go back to the publisher and say, “Oh please make me a version for this particular headset.”

Francesco:          That’s a good point, but I think that the Oculus and the Vive and, to a lesser extent, Sonys. They’re big enough investments that you won’t be able to change that easily. I think that when we see how big the markets are for these, I think that the developers will take that into account.

VRguy:  Perfect. Francesco, this has been great. Thank you very much. Where could people connect with you online to learn more about what you’re doing and see what you’re thinking?

Francesco:          I’m on Twitter @Fradicati. You can also see my research and my colleagues at Ovum.com

VRguy:  Very good. Thanks again for coming on to the program.

Francesco:          Thank you.

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