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“Virtual reality is now a mass phenomenon”

Femme portant un casque de réalité virtuelle

The conference program of Laval Virtual is looking back at the past.

Crédits photos : Freepik

On the occasion of the 25th edition of Laval Virtual, the international event on immersive technologies, many speakers are invited to talk about the future of virtual reality. Among them, Christoph Runde, director of the Virtual Dimension Center, is giving a presentation as part of the conference series “360° Industry”. From the German ecosystem to the concept of the “XR graveyard” and the development of the immersive market in Europe, Christoph Runde gives us an overview of the past and future of virtual reality.

How you ended up in the immersive field?

I studied electrical engineering, in particular automation, at the technical university in Dortmund, at the ISEN in Lille and at the University d’Haute Alsace in Mulhouse. I started my career at Porsche working on car chassis control systems. From there I moved on to the Fraunhofer-Institute for manufacturing engineering and automation (IPA). There I had the opportunity to lead a number of VR projects. These projects aimed at developing VR technology to design factories and automation systems. So that wasn’t an easy start because I lacked visualization and VR background, however I had some knowledge in simulation techniques, which helped.

In 1999, you started a job as Head of Fraunhofer IPA’s Virtual Reality. It’s actually the same year Laval Virtual was created, and we were only at the dawn of immersive technologies. You saw the evolution of XR since that year. Did XR grow the way you thought it would?

Well, I think the dawn was already 10 years earlier, in 1989. In 1999 the first VR wave, the first hype of VR was already over and VR found itself in the Gartner valley of disappointment. VR startet commercialization at the end of the 80s, AR startet commercialization in the beginning of the 90s. In the beginning and the middle of the 90s, VR and AR promised to do anything, but then it became clear that VR meant huge installation effort with expensive SGI computers, expensive projectors, expensive tracking systems. Not to mention huge effort for data preparation because computer systems were not suitable to handle very big 3D scenes.

I think everyone in that business understood that VR and AR will have a long path ahead. We have seen a lot of evolution in both VR and AR, e.g. cheap VR headsets, cheap tracking systems, cheap 3D ready projectors, AR on smartphones and tablet PCs, AR glasses dev kits like Hololens, game engines, content management and data preparation systems for VR and AR. XR is a mass phenomenon now, however it is still not the new “normal” for each gamer nor for each industrial company.

You will make a presentation at Laval Virtual 2023 called “Self positioning & industry perspective on XR in Germany in 2023”. How is the XR market in Germany?

The XR market in Germany is very scattered and full of a huge number of quite interesting niche solutions, others trying to do XR development projects, not specialized, but for a potential bigge group of customers. Generic XR platforms from Germany are rare, but some companies like rooom of Mapstar trying to do exactly this. The general market is characterized by a steady growth since 25 years.

The diffusion path of XR within the industrial verticals is quite typical: the big, innovative corporates such as Mercedes, Volkswagen, Airbus started with XR in the 90s, other industries follow. Second followers were companies from other transportation sectors such as commercial vehicles, trains and ships. Then came the machining companies and the health sectors. Since a few years we even have smart XR solutions for handicraft businesses. I think, this show the real progress XR made from the end of the 80s, when countries and armies were the only XR users and now, when micro business like handicraft can offer VR services.

In 2007, you created the Virtual Dimension Centered. How does it help the German XR ecosystem?

The Virtual Dimension Center (VDC) was created in 2002 by a group of entrepreneurs that wished to join forces in the XR sector by creating an association, a cluster management system for XR in the Stuttgart area. I joined the VDC as general manager in 2007. The VDC drive a huge number of activities for networking its own members and for XR technology transfer to the outside community. We organize coles to 50 events per year, we collect and organize XR knowledge, we process publications on XR helping the outside world to understand its potential and how to make use of it.

You often mention the “XR graveyard”. What is this concept?

The graveyard of dead XR technologies comprises an overview of so many dead-end XR development paths we have seen in the past. For example autostereoscopics with lenticular or parallax barrier, 3D television, 3D displays on the basis of plasma (which worked quite well for shutter glasses), LCD projectors (very suitable for polarizing filters), immersive work benches (e.g. Barco’s Baron, TAN Holobench), tabletop interfaces (where did they arrive in industry?), the complex haptic workbenches we have seen in the 90s already. Other technologies (e.g. lightfield) occur instead. I think it makes sense to have a good idea of what was already tried out in the past and what were the outcomes before developing new stuff. Maybe there have been some quite good ideas that could be re-used now; maybe there have been bad experiences with an R&D approach quite similar to the actual one.  

This year, the Laval Virtual conference programme focuses on “looking at the past and present to prepare the future”. We often say that we have to learn from our mistakes. Does the XR market learn from its mistakes?

In the end it’s the business, it’s the market, demand and offer, that define what solutions will be successful and what solutions will disappear. If I see the development of haptic gloves, similar in functionality to what we had 25 years ago (perhaps with just some new technologies inside) I tend to say “no”. If I see the lack of understanding what it means to get XR into steady and stable industrial use, into well established industrial business processes, into hard business models, I tend to say “no”. In addition, the view on AR headsets is not convincing: ODG, Metavision, Dacqri are history. Hololens and Magic Leap did not bring the breakthrough. On the other hand, the giant advances in VR headsets, in tracking systems, in games engines are tremendous.

In your opinion, what should we act on to ensure a successful future for immersive technologies in our world?

New, cheap and powerful VR headsets are not the solution to all the challenges VR has. To supply XR with good quality content, produced fast and automated; integrate XR into development and planning processes by replacing traditional ways of working; convince everyone that XR brings an individual benefit for their job – these are the key challenges.

How do you see the European XR market in the next few years?

We do not have a stronghold in consumer and entertainment XR solutions in Europe. We do not have very strong global companies producing consumer electronics hardware. It is not credible that Europe will create a huge global XR platform in the next years. However, we do have strong industries here and we are in particular strong manufacturing. In addition, we should not underestimate our creative industry.

What I see are quite good special XR solutions coming from Europe. Such special solution could serve dedicated applications areas or dedicated industrial/business verticals.You can only develop convincing solutions by working together with your customer. We do have such an excellent customer base here in Europe. This is our stronghold. We should have an eye on the huge platforms and business ecosystems for not becoming dependent on one of the big platform owners. Norms and standards for interoperability could help to keep our European XR scene in the game. 

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