In the next year or two, millions of gearheads will strap on VR headsets to explore their alter-egos, play games and view 3D content.
Shipments of virtual reality and augmented reality headsets will balloon this year to 1.4 million, up from just 140,000 in 2015, Gartner predicted Tuesday. In 2017, shipments will soar to 6.3 million.
VR systems were a hot-ticket at this year's CES, and products like the Oculus Rift, Sony's PlayStation VR, Microsoft's HoloLens and HTC's Vive are all expected to ship this year. That will fuel the initial boost in shipments, said Brian Blau, research director at Gartner.
"We're fairly enthusiastic about the prospects, but we're cautious that it won't take off as fast as other technologies like smartphones," he said.
This year will be dominated by "face-mask style headsets" like the $599 Oculus Rift, Blau said. Next year, more products with eye-glass and helmet form factors will appear.
Oculus Rift relies mostly on computer generated images, but more products will focus on "mixed reality" by blending real and virtual images. A prominent example is HoloLens, a full-fledged computer that blends interactive "floating" 3D images with a view of the real world.
Google, Nvidia, Intel and others are also jumping into VR. Mystery VR company Magic Leap, which hasn't yet released a product, received a whopping $793.5 million in funding on Tuesday from companies including Alibaba, Google and Qualcomm.
Headsets will be mainly for gaming and entertainment, but by 2018 about a quarter will be for business use, according to Gartner. They'll be used for training, simulation and troubleshooting equipment, Blau said.
Microsoft has already showed how HoloLens could be used in businesses and academia. The HoloLens can help medical students explore human anatomy by superimposing a 3D structure of the body in a user's field of vision.
Content is also being developed -- albeit slowly. Games and videos have been developed for Oculus Rift, and Samsung and its partners are creating content for its VR headset. Boutique firms like Two Bit Circus are developing interactive content.
Given that headsets are a whole new type of interface, there are challenges in developing interactive content. Software and video has been designed mainly for 2D systems, including flat screens and touch interfaces, and new skills are needed for the immersive content, on both the creative and consumer sides, Blau said.
Creating material that doesn't hurt the eye or cause nausea can make or break content and apps, Blau said.
"There's going to be a lot of good apps out there, but I'm sure there will be many bad ones too," he said.
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