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Steven Spielberg's hotly anticipated Ready Player One hits theatres March 29. The film features characters who escape a dystopian future Ohio by plugging into an alternative universe using virtual reality headsets. With the movie already getting raves from those who saw it at South by Southwest, tech watchers are speculating that Ready Player One will give VR a lift in the real world.
Virtual reality headsets, introduced about five years ago, have so far failed to become a mainstream technology; last year the category grew more slowly than expected. Users have complained that there's not enough content or apps; that headsets are expensive, clunky and difficult to set up; and that Oculus, HTC and PlayStation headsets must still be tethered to pricey PCs or game consoles.
VR fans got some good news in January at the Consumer Electronics Show, where manufacturers announced several new products and initiatives. Google and Lenovo teamed up on a standalone VR headset, and the search giant talked up the latest features for its smartphone-based Daydream VR platform. HTC Corp. announced a new version of its powerful headset with beefier graphics. And Facebook's Oculus stole some of the spotlight by announcing new details about its upcoming $200 Go Headset; namely that it would run a Qualcomm smartphone chip, which makes it more portable.
This year, the category will grow a record 25-plus percent, according to the Consumer Technology Association, and some analysts say Spielberg's film could provide an extra boost. Based on a book of the same name, Ready Player One takes place in 2045 and focuses on Wade Watts, who lives in a teeming trailer park in Columbus, Ohio. He and other characters become addicted to a 3-D virtual world called OASIS. (The headsets in the movie were dreamed up by the filmmakers.)
Hollywood was helping companies sell stuff long before product placements became ubiquitous. Luxottica credits movies like The Blues Brothers and Top Gun for boosting sales of Ray-Ban and other sunglasses brands in the 1980s and 1990s. "E.T." is said to have goosed sales of Reese's Pieces. The "GoldenEye" James Bond film lifted pre-orders of a new BMW roadster. And "Toy Story" famously helped revive Etch-A-Sketch.
While the immediate future for VR may be brighter, Apple and Amazon.com are betting that the technology eventually will be supplanted by augmented reality, which mixes the virtual with the real world. Even as Facebook, Sony and Google talked up VR at last week's Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, Apple engineers were busy describing the benefits of AR.
Apple already offers AR software that uses iPhone and iPad cameras and has tasked hundreds of engineers to build an AR headset that could ship as early as 2020. Amazon is likely on a similar trajectory. Spielberg's movie could help give VR a short-term lift, but even the world's top-grossing director is probably no match for the tech wizards in Cupertino and Seattle.
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