While some big-name computer makers spend countless millions on hip marketing campaigns to inspire round-the-block, first-day-of-sale lines for their latest devices, Dell has been quietly positioning itself on the bleeding edge of virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) technology.
In recent months, the Texas-based company has partnered with major studios to provide technology and expertise for immersive companion pieces to tentpole releases that put viewers inside the womb of an alien (Fox’s “Alien: Covenant”), on France’s coast in WWII (Warner Bros.’ “Dunkirk”), in the midst of the Spanish Inquisition (Fox’s “Assassin’s Creed”) and in the web-slinging unitard of a superhero (“Spider-Man: Homecoming”).
“I’ve had some [projects] we had to turn down because you can’t do everything,” says Gary Radburn, director of VR/AR for Dell. “People are seeing us as a technical innovator, a leader in solutions, and not just as hardware provider.”
The potential in the sector is huge. In 2016, $2.3 billion was invested in VR, AR and mixed reality, and market intelligence firm IDC has projected worldwide revenues from the technologies to reach $13.9 billion in 2017, up 130.5% from the $6.1 billion spent in 2016. But, so far, growth has been hampered by the high cost of VR headsets — the Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive retailed for $599 and $799, respectively, upon release in 2016 — as well as the need for newer, faster computers to run the processor-intensive content.
Dell was a launch partner for Oculus Rift at CES in 2016, and it has been working with both Oculus and HTC to make their devices plug-and-play with its Alienware, XPS and Inspiron systems. It has also collaborated with Microsoft on the recently released Dell Visor headset, retailing for $349 (plus $99 for handheld motion controllers), which unlike the Oculus and the Vive don’t require external sensors placed around the room.
On the content side, Dell is working with developers to make sure that their VR and AR experiences can be viewed without visual glitches such as mismatched motion, which can induce headaches and nausea in viewers.
“If you design an experience that PCs can’t handle today, it’s not just an annoyance,” says Frank Azor, VP of Alienware, Dell Gaming and XPS divisions at Dell. “It’s the difference between the customer being sick or enjoying the VR experience.”
That’s especially important if the end user is a journalist covering the unveiling of a cutting-edge piece of tech such as Jaguar’s first electric car, the I-Pace. In November 2016, Dell teamed with creative agency Imagination to create a launch event that gave the 66 guests (54 in Los Angeles and 12 in London) — who included celebrities such as James Corden and Michelle Rodriguez — a virtual tour of the I-Pace through HTC Vive goggles while the background morphed from a view of Venice Beach to a virtual desert. It also allowed them to interact with the event host and fellow participants in real time.
The event is pictured above.
The immersive experience was powered by 114 Dell Precision 5810 computer towers, including one for each journalist, hidden by black curtains behind the tables where they sat in groups of six.
“A lot of times [computers] turn up dead on arrival or they overheat,” says Russell Hall, head of technology and innovation director at Imagination. “But not one of these Dell PCs had a single fault.”
Production company 30 Ninjas, co-founded by director Doug Liman (“American Made”), used the Dell 7910 Precision workstation to render real-time full-resolution playback on the set of its 360-degree miniseries “Invisible,” and it used eight 7910s to live-stitch and live-switch footage from four Nokia OZO cameras to create the 360-degree immersive video telecast of TBS’ “Conan” from Comic-Con San Diego in 2016.
“We build our own PCs, as well, but when you use a custom-built PC and you have eight PCs on set, there’s a lot more trouble when something breaks,” says Lewis Smithingham, 30 Ninjas’ president of VR. “When all the machines are identical, it’s really much easier to find failure points.”
The boundary-breaking work Dell does on VR and AR projects for the entertainment industry effectively serves as an R&D lab for its projects in other areas, including the oil and gas industries, medicine, real estate and retail — and Dell acts as a liaison to bring the two sides together.
“We’re literally like a matchmaking agency,” says Radburn. “For example, if Wal-Mart is interested in a training program, we can say, ‘this person is a producer of 360 video who’s done it very successfully. Let’s introduce you and make that training video.’”
Hollywood also stands to benefit from Dell’s non-entertainment work. Dell’s partnership with headset maker Meta and Ultrahaptics to develop AR shoe design systems for Nike has the potential to change the way production designers, set decorators and costume designers work. And its work with Albert “Skip” Rizzo at the USC Institute of Creative Technologies, to explore how VR can help service members deal with PTSD and autistic teenagers overcome the stress of job interviews, could one day be used by actors and writers for research and character development.
Meta is part of the Dell Technology Partner Program, established in May 2017 to develop and promote VR/AR solutions on Dell hardware platforms. Other partners include 3D Live, which worked with Dell to create a VR experience for the Lonely Whale Foundation that aims to inspire viewers to recycle and clean up our oceans by immersing them in the undersea world of the giant aquatic mammal.
Equally exciting is the low barrier of entry that Dell is establishing for the next of generation of creators with new machines such as the Inspiron Gaming Desktop, starting at $599, which can be used in concert with free tools such as Blender animation software and Unreal and Unity gaming engines to make immersive content.
“What we’re doing now is building a pipeline of talent that’s going to come up into the industry,” says Radburn.