Despite the fact that consumer virtual reality (VR) has been with us for nearly two years, many have been quick to criticise the adoption rate of the medium. However, those who have already been immersed in the medium for a number of years understand that there will be ebbs-and-flows; that not every year will see the headlines remarking favourably on the emergence of immersive media. Tony Parisi, Global Head of VR/AR at Unity Technologies, is aware of this trend, and assures VRFocus that outside influence hasn’t dampened his enthusiasm for VR, AR and MR.
Unity is a leading development platform for VR and AR. Much like competitor Unreal Engine, Unity Technologies has been keen to shake the term ‘game engine’, as Unity 5 has proven value in the production of much more than interactive entertainment. As Parisi states in the below interview, the Unity platform has expanded to include tools specifically for enterprise, automotive industries and real-time storytelling. Thanks largely to the advent of new immersive mediums, videogame technology has become key to industries that would once have shunned anything to do with entertainment sectors.
In the interview below, Parisi discusses the principles behind Unity Technologies’ investment in immersive mediums, the way in which developers can choose to spread their teams across VR, AR and MR or specialise in a specific aspect of the youthful technologies, as well as what the future holds for the Unity platform and the industry as a whole. There’ll be plenty to come from Unity Technologies in 2018, and VRFocus will keep you informed of all the latest updates.
VRFocus: Unity has been at the forefront of VR development since the launch of the Oculus Rift DK1. Why do you think developers have chosen Unity for VR development over rival engines?
Tony Parisi [TP]: This is for a multitude of reasons. The first has been our focus on making VR development on our engine as effortless as possible for creators. Whether this is through plugins and tools on our Asset Store or new features like Timeline and Cinemachine, we give creators everything they need to build compelling experiences.
On top of this, the fact that it is free to start using the Unity platform means that anyone can start designing in VR. This also means that we have an incredible community of VR developers who share information on best practices and help one another solve problems. We have also listened to these developers and ensured their feedback is looped into future developments of the platform itself.
Finally, Unity supports the broadest range of VR hardware systems. We have made significant investments in supporting the leading VR head-mounted displays and peripherals, which gives our developers the confidence that they can target any VR hardware, and means that they don’t have to worry about picking a “winner” among the vast array of choices out there.
All this has led to Unity becoming the de facto tool for VR and AR creation. In fact, more than 60% of VR/AR experiences have been made using Unity.
VRFocus: Have you seen a comparable increase in developers using Unity inline with the increasing audience for VR?
TP: Of course, there will always be more consumers than creators in any medium, so the pace of that increase would not be as high as with consumers. Interestingly, with VR, we are seeing a bit of a supply and demand problem, as some of our customers can’t seem to find and hire talented VR developers fast enough. One possible reason for this is that the skills and language needed to design VR experiences is not being widely taught. While game-making and other creative design roles have courses at a vast number of education facilities, modern VR is still a new and evolving field. The good news is we’re helping to forge the path for burgeoning VR developers – we partnered with Udacity on a course that teaches the latest virtual reality tools and technologies so people can become successful VR developers. We also offer hands-on training at the corporate level, to enterprises who want to level up their VR development skills. As always, our goal is to help developers succeed by democratising VR development and streamlining the process.
VRFocus: Do you see other immersive mediums, such as AR and MR, following the same path as VR?
TP: Other immersive mediums will evolve in-line with VR to some degree, but there will be variations. First off, the release of ARKit and ARCore means that there will be over one billion AR-ready devices by the end of 2018. Even the most enthusiastic of VR advocates would struggle to suggest there will be that many headsets in circulation by the same date! With this in mind, we expect to see more individuals and companies developing for phone-based AR, as the market has the potential to be that much bigger.
But of course, with phone-based AR, the experience is more limited and less immersive than with VR. For some applications, such as enterprise training and simulation, or fully immersive games and cinematic experiences, there is no replacement for VR.
Mixed reality is somewhere in the middle. It doesn’t cut you off from the outside world, so the use cases and venues for experiencing it are potentially as broad as with phone-based AR. On the other hand, the size and cost of an MR headset like the HoloLens mean that its use will take root in business and enterprise first, not with consumers… not until the cost and form factor are down to a pair of smart glasses.
Going forward, as these variations of the technology take root in different places at different rates of adoption, developers will go where the customers — and the money– are.
VRFocus: Is there a significant division between VR, AR and MR development studios? Is VR still king of the hill?
TP: Due to the fact that there are a range of similar skills and requirements across VR, AR and MR, there are many studios who work across the mediums. However, I believe this to be a short-term thing. As immersive tech evolves and advances, more companies will specialise and focus on their own niche. For example, you can expect to see companies who only deal with healthcare-focused VR experiences due to the complexity of the applications. Of course, there will still be organisations who are able to develop across all of the technologies, but these will be rarer than businesses focused on dealing with a speciality. It will most likely be the companies straddling the medium who focus on the burgeoning field of Mixed Reality.
VR and AR offer different experiences for consumers. What we are seeing now with AR is that there is a real and tangible opportunity to reach more consumers. That said, VR is right where it should be. Historically, when you look back, enterprise and business are the first to adopt new technologies because they have the means, resources and problems to solve. We’re seeing that now with VR now across medical, training, film & entertainment, etc. Now that we have some untethered all-in-one VR devices at lower price points, I expect to see a lift this holiday season and the VR growth trend continue in 2018.
VRFocus: Do you feel there will come a point when the three major immersive mediums merge?
TP: I think many of us would like to see some kind of “convergent device” that can do it all; some kind of smart glasses or lightweight goggles that can either display or tune out the real world with the flip of a switch. But I’m not sure that it will play out this way.
There will be a crossover between the three mediums, but the method of interaction is different enough that there will be a separation. For example, virtual reality is a graphically constructed world. While augmented reality requires graphics placed over the real world. There is a chance that the majority of experiences will sit between AR and VR, but I believe there will always be a place for an experience that immerses you entirely in a world.
And maybe that’s ok. Look at what we have with 2D media today. 2D graphics are displayed on a variety of screen types, from mobile phones, to tablets, to desktop computers, to power walls and even jumbotrons. Some media types and apps that play on those screens, like movies, can span across the different display types. Others, such as games designed specifically for a phone, may only work well there because it uses location, the accelerometer and other phone-specific features and was designed for that small form factor.
VRFocus: What are the next steps for VR, AR and MR development tools in Unity?
TP: In general, we’re focused on making it easier to develop on Unity and constantly improving our platform by rolling out updates that help our developers more easily create compelling experiences. The industry and what people want from their development engines is changing constantly, so we need to make sure that Unity keeps up and delivers the features our users want and need. Looking forward, we’re also expanding our development platform to support new verticals and industries such as auto, creative & brand, real-time storytelling and more.
VRFocus: We’ve been promised ‘the year of VR’ for many years, but it’s still never quite arrived. How do you see the market faring in 2018?
TP: 2018 is going to be a big year for VR. If 2016 was the time when VR caught the public’s imagination, then 2017 was when many experienced the ‘gap of disappointment,’ which is the divide between expectation and reality. The rate of adoption of VR hardware was slower than some predicted; the number of new startups getting funded in VR slowed; and the hype died down quite a bit. That said, there are many encouraging signs though. VR investments in aggregate actually jumped 79% in the second half of 2017, which means more industries are investing in the technology. What we expect to see is growth in the number of enterprises using VR. From automotive, creative, healthcare, to manufacturing and retail organisations are realising the huge benefits that it can bring. In the consumer space, the release of headsets like Oculus Go means that it is even more accessible. 2017 was needed to temper expectations, as, like with other technology revolutions, change doesn’t happen overnight. Instead, it is a process that takes some years to spread and mature properly. The foundations for VR have all been laid, and 2018 is the time when it will take off.