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Network News • 15-06-2023

Stepping into virtual or augmented reality

Author: George Mangion - Senior Partner PKF Malta
Published on Business Today: 15th June 2023

Apple has announced the long-awaited headset, which will be called Vision Pro. The first model is expensive but many expect that one day in the not-so-distant future we will see a cheaper headset. This is expected to arrive in 2025. Apple is referring to the headset as its “first spatial computer” with a big emphasis on how a user will be able to stay present in the physical world while wearing it.

Apple CEO Tim Cook spoke about how the Vision Pro ushers in “the beginning of a new era for computing.” Apple’s first headset costs several thousand dollars but children are not the only ones excited about “extended reality”, a category which includes both fully immersive virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR), in which computer imagery is superimposed onto users’ view of the world around them.

Nearly every big technology firm is rushing to develop a VR or ar headset, convinced that what has long been a niche market may be on the brink of becoming something much larger. The initial market for VR sets, though, is corporate, rather than retail. Early customers are expected to include organisations that already use VR for training and want to improve the experience: medical schools teaching operating techniques to surgeons, for example, estate agents, or workshops that repair jet engines.

Another use might be to permit collaboration between engineers living in different parts of the world. People working on a new car, say, could meet in a virtual laboratory, tinker with virtual components, and pass around virtual copies of their designs. Smartphones, computers and the touchscreens now proliferating in vehicles, fast-food venues and so on could all benefit from a bit of haptic feedback.

One notable example is Aito, a firm based in Amsterdam. It produces haptic systems for laptops and other digital devices. These employ actuators based on piezoelectric materials, which shrink or expand in response to a voltage, producing a slight movement. This means piezo materials can be employed both as actuators and as sensors.

Competitors of Apple include Meta and Microsoft. Meta, has sold 10m or so Quest 2 devices in the past 18 months; Cambria, with its more advanced headset, is coming this year. Microsoft is pitching its pricier HoloLens 2 to businesses. Google is working on a set of goggles known as Iris.

Since buying Oculus, a headset-maker, for $2bn in 2014, Meta has captured the market, with 80% of VR sales by volume in 2021. Pico, a headset-maker owned by ByteDance, TikTok’s Chinese owner, is doing well in its home market, where Meta is banned. Meta’s VR strategy still revolves around adverts.

Quoting George Jijiashvili of Omdia, a firm of analysts, Meta is selling headsets as fast as it can in order to build an audience for advertisers. The downside of their slender styling is a battery life of 30 minutes and a tendency to overheat.

The top seller in 2021 was Microsoft’s HoloLens 2, a $3,500 device used by big clients including America’s armed forces (whose order for 100,000 pairs provoked complaints from Microsoft staff that they “did not sign up to develop weapons”).

Despite VR’s dominance of the headset space, ar sparks more excitement about mass adoption. Even with Meta’s relentless promotion of virtual concerts, office meetings and more, few people use VR for anything other than gaming. Apple’s recent unveiling of its VR headset will give a taste of the ar experience. These first products are said to be aimed at designers and other creative professionals, rather like its high-end Macintosh computers.

“Apple’s ability to drive adoption is probably unparalleled in the market,” says Mark Shmulik of Bernstein, a broker. It will hope to do brisk business in China, giving it an edge over Meta. The big question is whether headsets can go beyond gamers and professionals, and become a true tech platform rather than just an accessory. Today’s ar and VR gear is good at solving “very specific pain-points”, says Tony Fadell, a former Apple executive who helped develop the iPhone. Mr Fadell thinks, headsets will be a bit like smart watches, popular but not revolutionary in the way the smartphone has been. Experts agree that headsets will not fully replace phones, just as phones have not done away with desktop computers.

But, computing has become more personal and over thirty years has moved from the mainframe, to the desktop, to the palm of the hand. The next step, he believes, is for computing to be “overlaid on the world around you” by ar. Desktop computing was mainly about information processing, and smartphones were mainly about communication.

In this scenario, headsets could be part of a broader ecosystem of wearable technology that draws consumers’ attention — and spending power—away from the smartphones that have monopolized them for the past years. With smart watches, smart earphones and, soon, smart spectacles, the phone could become personal computing’s back office rather than its primary interface.

How can we as a small country contribute to this technological advance? The problem with us is we are peripheral to the software world. We lost many opportunities when our national contribution to research and development is weak and sporadic.

The setting of MCST 10 years ago was a right step headed by a chairperson ( a dentist- now retired ) and little contribution was registered on any international scientific breakthrough.

Again, Malta Enterprise does not oblige assisted companies which settled  locally to bring their IP. In this way, little or no top research is captured in our shores. But it is not all doom and gloom.

Research in and production of electronic components have been identified as areas that need public support to ensure that the entire microelectronics value chain is reliably available to all European players. It is good news indeed that a Malta-based international company has qualified for substantial financial support at the EU levels.

STMicroelectronics (ST) is a global semiconductor company making microchips embedded in a host of advanced products from giant machines used in factories to the ordinary toothbrush you use every night. It operates manufacturing sites in several countries, having first set foot in Malta more than 40 years ago.

The EU is doing the right thing by adopting similar US strategies to build excellent microelectronics facilities in the Union. Can we join the band wagon of revolutionary countries that have given us the likes of augmented and/or virtual reality marvels.

Author: George Mangion - Senior Partner PKF Malta
Published on Business Today: 15th June 2023
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