The international press has widely tipped 2016 to be the year that Virtual Reality (VR) hits the mainstream. The hype is building to a frenzy with the widely anticipated launch of a variety of major products from Sony, Oculus and HTC.As a technology analyst in the nineties, I clearly remember the “false dawn” of VR, where the possibilities excited but the technology failed to deliver. Things certainly look more promising this time around.
For VR 2.0 the initial target market is clearly gaming and entertainment. Many game developers are hugely excited about the potential of the technology to create highly immersive gaming experiences and we are already seeing the technology being used to blur the boundaries between advertising and entertainment. Examples promoting Porsche and Star Wars are early instances of what will become an increasingly ubiquitous phenomenon.
But what of the business applications of Virtual Reality?
One of the limitations of VR, which may act as a brake on short term consumer adoption, is the fact that creating a highly compelling and realistic experience demands extremely high-end hardware. Research from NVidia suggests that less than 1% of PCs are currently capable of running VR. Despite this, many businesses will be keen to invest and put VR to innovative and creative uses outside of the hype of the mainstream. We can already see interesting and compelling examples in a diverse range of industries including architecture (including architectural planning, urban planning, virtual campuses, real estate tours and real-time bespoke design), healthcare simulation, automotive manufacture, and virtual warehousing used at trade shows to showcase large and bulky items to customers.
VR also provides a more natural and more intuitive environment for 3D design (potentially making it easier for non-professionals to create designs for 3D printing), and has great potential for the treatment of mental health conditions such as anxiety, phobias and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In Education, there are numerous possibilities for immersive training for difficult jobs, and to allow learning through interactive experience and play. Take a look at this example that allows students to explore an ancient Greek villa.
So what are the opportunities for business?
As a raft of more affordable technology becomes available, there will be many interesting niche applications. Businesses would benefit from keeping a watch on developments in their own and other sectors to identify immediate opportunities. Employee training and the creation of exciting and unique immersive marketing experiences to inspire customers are two obvious use cases.
The examples above showcase the widespread potential of VR, and I believe that this technology has the potential to evolve into a widely used platform for communication, collaboration and entertainment in the future. Mass market adoption is more likely in a few years than in the immediate future as it will likely require a few more generations of evolution for the current hardware, or the creation of a “VR-lite” – technology at an affordable price point that really captures the public imagination.
For example, it is possible to envisage a future where Facebook (via its acquisition of Oculus) or a new competitor disrupts the current news-feed based model of social networking to create a wildly popular, immersive metaverse – a virtual world in which users project their identity onto an avatar – allowing for new and richer kinds of interaction. Shopping could be similarly transformed with VR re-introducing the social and “experiential” components that are lost in conventional e-Commerce.
Looking further ahead, we will see the focus move away from purely audio-visual experiences to ones that engage our other senses – touch via haptics, and even taste and smell. Prototypes and early versions of these technologies are already available; the challenge will be to bring it all together in an intuitive and unobtrusive form.
As with any technology there are risks as well as rewards. There are some physical risks with some users reporting nausea, severe dizziness, epileptic seizures or blackouts when using VR. Psychologists have highlighted the risk of addiction or disconnect from reality resulting from significant periods of exposure to the technology. We will also face moral and ethical choices for how we put it to use, for example, the use of VR in “immersive journalism” could allow photographers and journalists to manipulate the truth and create false impressions in the mind of the viewer.
Are we ready for a future in which we are able to experience highly realistic and immersive simulated reality? Whatever your view, the technology is coming and there are genuine opportunities for organisations to innovate with VR now.
What kind of new realities might you create for your business?