Also see: 10 Top Virtual Reality Apps
Virtual reality companies face one key truth: VR is one of those computing ideas that has been way, way ahead of the capabilities of existing technology. The idea was solid but the silicon and software just have not been there to make it a genuine reality, or at least a believable one.
Those same virtual reality companies face potentially very good news: This year might be the one where we finally have a breakthrough in terms of technology. Dozens of hardware and software companies are spending hundreds of millions on R&D into virtual reality that is realistic and doesn't make you nauseas when you use it, a common side effect of VR headsets.
In late April San Jose, Calif. will host the Silicon Valley Virtual Reality Expo, a show made up of a mix of familiar names and startups. The top company is Nvidia, the dominant company in the graphics processing unit (GPU) space while other VR company sponsors include Perception Neoron, VideoStitch, and Vizuality Studio.
Consumer interest in VR is increasing. VR hardware sales alone are expected to grow from $1.4 billion this year to $2.4 billion in 2017, according to virtual reality consulting firm KZero. For VR software, which is mostly video games right now, the company estimates sales of $2.8 billion by 2018.
Let's take a look at some of the virtual reality companies that are leading the way. This is not a complete list at this early day, simply the 20 VR companies standing tall in the current market.
The VR company that’s the leader, at least in terms of mindshare, is Oculus. It managed to lure two of the top programmers in the country, Michael Abrash and John Carmack, to its development team. Oculus became such a hot property Facebook shelled out $2 billion for a product not even shipping. Oculus got major game developers on board early, hence its lead in the VR headset space, but it's finding business uses. For example, Marriott Hotels is using the Oculus Rift headset as a way to showcase distant hotels to potential guests. The headsets began shipping on March 28, 2016 for $599.
The Oculus headset
While Oculus and other VR companies invest in expensive headsets made of hefty plastic, rubber and metal, Google has a $15 headset made of cardboard called, what else, Google Cardboard. Cardboard is designed specifically for using VR apps on Android smartphones. Google doesn't develop software like Oculus does; instead, it encourages developers to make and sell VR apps for Google Play. Its emphasis at this point is around games.
Google's Cardboard, the low cost VR option
WorldViz is a virtual reality company that makes 3D interactive and immersive visualization and simulation solutions aimed at universities, government institutions, and private business alike. Its software allows customers to build 3D models for product visualization, safety training, and architecture visualization. The company claims customers save about 90 percent of the costs involved in making real physical models by making full sized virtual displays for layouts of buildings instead.
This Dutch software firm transforms construction designs from major CAD and other 3D modeling software into three-dimensional VR environments, which you can then view in a life-like 3D image using any of several headsets, including Oculus and Google Cardboard. This gives people a chance to "walk through" a design, as it were, and see how it would look when completed, so they can make changes.
5. Marxent Labs
Marxent's VisualCommerce 3D Virtual Reality Design Studio & Showroom allows retailers and manufacturers to create a 3D design studio and showroom for building live demos, similar to wat Bricks & Goggles does. This VR company’s biggest customer is home improvement chain Lowe's, which offers the Holoroom. Customers build a virtual room made of Lowe's products, then use the headset to see the room as it would look when constructed.
A leading developer of 3D game technology, Unity offers a self-titled gaming development platform for building VR games, and the company's CEO claims at least 90, if not 95 percent, of all content built so far for VR has been built on Unity. It supports all headsets.
Yes, Microsoft is very much a VR company. It introduced the headset at the 2015 Game Developer's Conference as "a full Windows 10 device with holographic capability." In addition to the CPU and GPU that other VR headsets use, Microsoft developed a holographic processing unit, or HPU. The HPU processes and integrates data from the sensors, handling tasks such as spatial mapping, gesture recognition, and voice and speech recognition. HoloLens is also wireless, unlike other headsets.
8. Magic Leap
Magic Leap makes a head-mounted virtual retinal display, which superimposes 3D computer-generated imagery over real world objects by projecting a digital light field into the user's eye. This allows for placing 3D objects in the user's field of vision of the real world instead of a 100% virtual vision like other headsets. Magic Leap has raised a record-breaking amount of money for a VR company; in December 2015, it raised $827 million in Series C funding, and in February it racked up another $793 million, the largest amount of funding for a startup ever.
This VR company makes two devices, the M100 and M300, which are what Google Glass tried and failed to be. It also makes iWear, a headset that offers the equivalent of a 125-inch 3D screen and headphones with surround sound. It works with videogames to give 3D immersion.
CastAR glasses are a spinoff from game developer Valve Software that projects 3D holographic images in front of your eyes to offer a virtual layer on top of the real world (similar to Magic Leap) or feel like you’re immersed inside a game world. The VR company recently hit a snag and delayed the release of the headset until 2017.
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