SIGGRAPH 2016 TECH TALK: VR, AR, Scanning & Mapping

Over the course of last week in Anaheim, SIGGRAPH 2016 took place. While this is not typically speaking an event for the average consumer and is more focused towards the business-to-business and professional scene, it is also one which showcases what the collective computer graphics industry is thinking. More to the point, what is currently good for the business industries. For those that attended the event this year, there was one overriding and clear focus for the event, virtual reality (VR).

As this is an event more aimed towards the business industries, there were no new or necessarily exciting products being announced. However, there were a number of staples of the industry who did make an appearance. NVIDIA was in town and showcasing how they are a "VR ready" company thanks to their PC technology and range of GPUs. As well as the actual hardware components, NVIDIA were showcasing a number of software enhancements which will look to streamline the future development of both VR and augmented reality (AR) content.

Interestingly, Google was also in town. However, their representation at the event was much more towards the AR side of things with the company looking to showcase Tango. Although, as this was a business event, Google was not here with the Lenovo Phab2 Pro (which is the first Tango-enabled consumer device) and instead was there highlighting the early Tango prototype, the Tango Developer Kit. In spite of this being a somewhat older piece of kit now, it was one of the features of the event which seemed to gain quite a considerable level of feedback from the attendees with plenty of developer kits circulating the show floor. Which was slightly telling in its own right. As this is a business-to-business focused event, it was apparent that Google is trying to ensure that those in the business are aware of Tango’s capabilities and what it can do for the business industry as a whole.

Which does make sense as while VR is certainly getting the majority of headlines of late, AR is one of the technologies which is being seen by those ‘in the know’ as a more longer term project. One which will be of functional benefit to consumers and businesses over a greater number of years. While that is not to say that VR is not going to offer as much (or grow more in the long term), the general consensus emerging from the business sector is that AR has more functional benefits. There are implications for AR in the construction industry, the tourist industry, the retail industry and much more. So it looks like Google was there laying the groundwork and hoping more of the business-focused developers, companies and the rest are aware that Tango is open for business.

That said, the Lenovo Phab2 Pro was in attendance thanks to Qualcomm taking part at the event. Which is not surprising either as Qualcomm has already announced its support for Tango in general and already has two Tango-ready processors available to their customers, the Qualcomm Snapdragon 652 and the Snapdragon 820. The Phab2 Pro is one which comes equipped with the former, while the market still awaits the first Tango-enabled Snapdragon 820-running smartphone. Besides showcasing the Phab2 Pro and the consumer side of Tango, Qualcomm were also showcasing some of the more impressive technologies at the event. Which neatly leads us on to the other consistent theme of this year’s SIGGRAPH, scanning and mapping.

Scanning and mapping are not new entities and these are fundamental parts of true AR. While Pokémon GO highlights AR at the superficial level, it is AR’s ability to map real areas and incorporate that information into a virtual world that forms the basis for real case AR features and services and this was a clear theme throughout the event with many businesses showcasing their various mapping technologies. In terms of Qualcomm, they were highlighting some very interesting ones. One of the most popular (by way of eyes on product) was the technology to be able to fully scan an individual's face and transpose that scan onto a 3D virtual representation of the person.

Qualcomm were also highlighting another service which has emerged as a formation of partnership with Dacuda. This particular adventure works in a somewhat opposite way to what is traditionally thought of as AR. Instead of imposing virtual reality images onto the real world in front of you, the Dacuda 3D scanning technology looked to take 3D objects (in the example - a bowl of fruit), scan the object and remove that object from its original setting and thereby, creating the image as its own 3D representation. What was most impressive about this particular technology is that it is able to do this from a mobile phone. So it is not only likely, but possible, that future smartphones running a Qualcomm processor and making use of the Dacuda SLAM Scan 3D software will be able to create their own 3D content by capturing images from the real world and using the smartphone’s camera.

Of course, with VR being the one consistent thread throughout SIGGRAPH 2016, Qualcomm was also bringing to attention that that they are another 'VR-ready' company. Qualcomm was making this point clear by showing off their own VR capabilities with the use of a prototype head-mounted display (HMD or more simply, a headset). This was not a hardware product that is ever going to make it to market and instead just a prototype to showcase the company’s Snapdragon Virtual Reality Software Development Kit it announced earlier in the year. However, attendees were able to test out the headset and see how the Snapdragon 820 processor is primed for VR. The demonstration was far more 3D-like than some of the other VR demonstrations that you would have encountered at the show, as this one looked to provide a full 3D experience where you could essentially circle entities in the virtual reality world. It is not just happening in front of you and around you, but a more immersive experience where you could walk around it.

Which brings us full circle again as while there was plenty of technologies being showcased at the event, it was VR that was clearly driving the market this year. Most of the businesses who were at the event and promoting their services or technologies were highly VR-focused. The show itself even offered an entire 'VR Village' just to house the numerous services being touted. An aspect which did speak volumes about the state of the industry. While AR, scanning, mapping and the other technologies that were on show were impressive, VR is where the market is currently looking towards for the next year(s). What was equally as revealing from the VR perspective, was that it seems many businesses are seeing the value in 'VR sports'. Which sort of makes sense. The VR market is one which is likely to be the next booming market and sports already encompasses a booming commercial market. Therefore, combining the two seems like an instant win-win and there were plenty of businesses at the event looking to promote their take on sports-related VR.

Some of these were more game focused, while others were more about being at the game. Although the one consistency was the relationship between sports and VR. Weirdly, Baseball, in particular seemed to be a very common theme at this year's event and you could barely swing a bat in the Anaheim Convention Center without hitting a VR ball.

So, when it comes to SIGGRAPH 2016, it is very clear what the big takeaways from this event were. The first and most obvious was that the business industry does clearly see VR as an extremely important market going forward. Which marries well with what the general media and larger consumer population seems to think. While there are other emerging and related technologies also starting to make a mark in the business sectors, it is VR that is the current trailblazing technology. If this is the understanding from the manufacturer, developer and business perspective, then it stands to reason that in the next twelve months we are going to see a significant increase in the number of VR-related services, products and offerings coming through. Of course, to many who follow tech news closely, this will not be surprising. Although, what might be a little more surprising is that we also might start to see a significant number of sports-related VR content and experiences coming through in due time.

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About the Author
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John Anon

Editor-in-Chief
John has been writing about and reviewing tech products since 2014 after making the transition from writing about and reviewing airlines. With a background in Psychology, John has a particular interest in the science and future of the industry. Besides adopting the Managing Editor role at AH John also covers much of the news surrounding audio and visual tech, including cord-cutting, the state of Pay-TV, and Android TV. Contact him at [email protected]
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