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Virtual Reality is Gaining Ground

From niche topic to mass phenomenon

An expedition to Mount Everest? In 2017, it might look like this: virtual reality headset, a computer with ample processing power, electricity, manual input devices, and also a room big enough not to bump into things. Weatherproof clothing? That is expendable.

The summit tour is made possible for example with Everest VR, a new software from the Icelandic start-up Sólfar. In high-resolution photos and videos, the technology sends the user onto the highest mountain in the world. As true to reality and fascinating as if you were Sir Edmund Hillary—without getting chilblains on your feet.

Virtual reality in your own home

What was considered quite unimaginable a few years ago has now arrived in the living rooms of the world. Virtual reality, or VR in short, is no longer a labored game of some eccentric technology freaks, but almost a mass phenomenon today. According to a survey by the Digital Association Bitkom, one in ten of the population has already worn a VR headset at least once.

The desire to see more than reality is not new. As early as the 19th century, the so-called Laterna Magica could be used to project pictures onto smoke and artificial fog. A sometimes rather creepy spectacle. The Magic Lantern was therefore also called the "terror lantern".

"The possibilities for the application of this technology are almost unlimited," says Timm Lutter, Head of Consumer Electronics & Digital Media at Bitkom

Since then, technology has advanced. Instead of projection on smoke, the industry now relies on razor-sharp displays. Position and acceleration sensors measure every movement of the head. Infrared systems situate the body in relation to the room. The result: a perfect illusion. Perhaps a bit too perfect for some.

"People wearing VR glasses for the first time often feel a kind of seasickness", says Markus Ambrus, CEO of Augmented Minds, a Munich start-up for virtual reality apps. "This phenomenon is of course annoying. But attempts are being made to project, e.g. a virtual nose into the field of vision. This makes orientation easier."

The community is working feverishly to perfect the technology. Because this is about something quite big—"the next generation computing platform"—as the investment bankers of Goldman Sachs have termed it. By 2025, they expect VR to reach a market volume of $ 80 billion worldwide.

The big driver is still the game industry, but the application possibilities are far beyond that. Whether in medicine, architecture, education or manufacturing, every user expects to see immense advantages from the realistic 3D animation. Also the tourism industry believes it will benefit from the new virtual world.

Far ahead in this race are the sporting goods manufacturers for example. Adidas is already experimenting with a kind of virtual locker room. Also Bogner does real pioneering work in this field. At ISPO MUNICH 2017, the company recently presented a technology developed by the Fraunhofer Institute for Integrated Circuits IIS named HolodeckVR. For the first time, this technology permits to share the experience of virtual reality with about 100 other users simultaneously on more than 40.000 square meters.

"This new technology enables us to take our customers along on the ski slopes"— Willy Bogner

Obviously, the large digital corporations too are at the forefront. With Google's Project Tango for example, it is now possible to map out complete rooms in real time—a technology that is just tailor-made for interior decorators or exhibition booth builders. Instead of using plans, this technology platform allows to place objects directly in the virtual space.

The experts agree: Virtual reality is more than just a short-lived trend. Companies and consumers benefit equally from it. And even notorious technology pessimists need not be afraid. The possibilities of this new technology are not set to replace the real world, but enhance it. And the best of both worlds is that they belong together.