Samsung explains why it’s all in on VR

Virtual reality was the star of the show when Samsung executives took the stage this week at its annual developer conference.

Virtual reality technology (VR) is very much the center of attention at the fourth annual Samsung Developer Conference (SDC) in San Francisco.

The company's day one keynote address kicked of with futuristic video clips that showcased its various VR products, including the Gear VR headset and the new Gear 360 VR camera, which lets Galaxy S7 users capture 360-degree video. The company talked up its Milk VR service, designed to help users discover compelling VR content.

Samsung also announced a number of developer-related VR enhancements to its SDKs, including a feature that lets coders add the equivalent of hyperlinks within their 360 video that connect to other video clips.

The Korean electronics giant set up "a 4D VR rollercoaster" and "Mayan Temple" VR puzzle game that uses physical objects, 4D environmental effects and virtual interactions. SDC offered more VR-related workshop sessions for coders than any other subject, except for Internet of Things (IoT). (The company offered 13 sessions each around VR and IoT.)

"Samsung is a leader in the VR industry," said Injong Rhee, executive vice president and head of R&D, software and services, for Samsung's mobile communications business. "VR is amazing, but the industry is still in its infancy."

Endless potential for VR, but real challenges remain

Samsung released it first VR headset in 2014, a developer version of Gear VR. A year later, the consumer version hit the market. And thanks to the upcoming April 29 release of the company's Gear 360 camera, "2016 is shaping up to be the year of VR," according to Andrew Dickerson, Samsung's director of software engineering, who also spoke during the SDC keynote.

Samsung is clearly all in on VR, but Rhee was realistic about the hurdles the industry must overcome if it hopes to offer any sort of seamless VR experience. "Today's VR equipment is still very heavy," Rhee said. "It can sometimes cause dizziness, and for these qualities to be improved [VR gear] requires a lot of computational power. It also restricts mobility because it has to have a wire."

As Rhee discussed VR's current shortcomings, he stood in front of a slide that listed additional "areas for innovation," including VR image quality and limited input control. Bandwidth and storage of large video files are also concerns, according to Dickerson. "These are exactly the areas we are working on to try to improve," Rhee said.

Samsung's vision for the future of VR

Today, many of the most obvious applications of VR are in the business world, according to Rhee -- most notably in real estate -- for virtual property tours, and the entertainment industry, where media companies are already experimenting with VR for music, sports and drama programming. But cameras such as the Gear 360 will enable consumers to create their own VR content, Rhee said, and that will speed up the adoption process.

"VR technology is transforming many industries and creating amazing opportunities for everyone," he said. " VR will not just be for the professionals, it will be for consumers as well."

Samsung's vision for VR includes not only dedicated headsets, but also immersive video on smartphones and TV monitors. "We are working on wireless, dedicated VR devices, and that will give you motion tracking and hand gesture tracking, and all of this combined will give you that immersive experience," Rhee said. However, VR users will also "be able to watch 360 video on smartphones and on TV, and you will actually get a VR experience without a head-mounted camera."

To accelerate developer momentum around VR, Samsung earlier this month gave away 2,600 Gear VR kits to Facebook coders at the social network’s F8 developer conference. Though Rhee addressed the many challenges that exist for VR, he said he doesn't expect it to take very long for the company to address them.

"In two or three years, you will enter the virtual world and interact with virtual objects as if you're really there. That's the reality we're trying to create — the virtual reality," Rhee said. "You're going to see a lot of our products hitting the market in a few years with these capabilities."

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Tags productssamsungvirtual realityGalaxy S7Virtual reality technology (VR)Gear 360 VR camera

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