I remember eagerly waiting to try first-generation VR technologies more than 20 years ago — and being almost immediately disappointed once I put on the goggles. Rather than finding myself transported into a virtual world, I was offered a guided tour of a polygonal wasteland with little to look at and even less to do. VR has popped up from time to time but has never been able to grow out of the gadget phase. The experience promised to be immersive, but it left me sorely underwhelmed and eager to get back to reality.
Since then, the technology underpinning VR has improved in truly meaningful ways. Computational power has advanced to the level necessary to generate smooth graphics in real time. VR equipment has become more comfortable and less cumbersome, thanks to electronics that use smaller amounts of silicon, reducing their weight. Advancements in LED and LCD technologies have made it possible to offer a window into a convincing artificial world. Anyone who has tried a current VR headset knows how confidently this technology skips across the uncanny valley.
Virtual reality has been hyped and rehyped over the years, but it finally seems poised to make an impact. Now that the technology has reached maturity, developers and users alike can do transformative things with VR. And the applications extend far beyond gaming.
Virtual reality has abandoned dinosaurs for the present
One of the most significant limitations of past VR technologies is that they could only take users into a world that felt distinctly false. I could walk through the legs of a cartoon dinosaur more convincingly than I could walk down the street where I live.
Aided by the limitless computing power of the cloud, improvements in VR technologies have flipped that script. It’s now possible, even relatively easy, to create virtual realities that convincingly incorporate images from the real world. The potential of VR technologies is expanding exponentially now that the real world can be both virtualised and augmented. While these technologies could only be used to amuse and distract in the past, they can now be used to inform and educate.
There’s still a ways to go before VR fully enters the mainstream — if it’s ever truly embraced as a mainstream technology. Developers are still learning the ropes, costs are still prohibitively high, and the technology has intrigued, if not yet engaged, the public. But these barriers are breaking down fast. And forward-thinking companies, aided by IT giants, are in something of an arms race to bring the first “killer app” to market. It’s not a question of if, but when, and the timeline is measured in months, not years.
Blazing a trail by maximising VR’s business uses
More than a few companies have decided not to wait and have begun actively integrating various VR applications into their daily operations. These companies are blazing a trail, but it’s one that’s relatively easy for others to follow without having to heavily invest in technology or talent. Here are some examples that illustrate just how much is already possible:
- Coming together without leaving your office: Despite all the communication and collaboration technologies we have at our disposal, there’s still no real replacement for a face-to-face meeting around a big table next to an empty whiteboard. There’s something about the shared space that gets ideas flowing in a way an email simply cannot. Virtual reality can be used to create the same environment, connecting stakeholders in a meaningful way without the cost of travel.
- Eliminating downtime with virtual problem-solving: Businesses with a widespread presence often suffer when “experts” are in one place and problems are in another. Just think of a factory with a broken machine whose chief technician is in another country. Virtual and augmented reality make it possible for specialists to examine and even make inputs into the equipment without having to physically travel to the site. Furthermore, these technologies make it possible for ordinary technicians to access solutions and insights to a problem quickly. Flipping through a manual will become a thing of the past. Essential information will be available on demand, providing the right information at the right time and saving time and money.
- Working with prototypes that haven’t been built: The prototyping process is notoriously expensive. It's labor-intensive, and costly materials can go to waste when moving on to a new iteration. With the flexibility and accessibility of modern VR, it’s possible to design, build, and test endless versions of a prototype without committing a single cent to the cost of materials. Designers can adjust existing models, tweak variables, and create new testing scenarios with a level of speed and efficiency that would have been impossible previously.
- Taking virtual test drives: Today’s consumers have more tools than ever to help them compare products, identify alternatives, and make informed purchases. But with more and more purchases happening online, many consumers can't be sure of what they’ve bought until it arrives at their door. Brands still rely more on vague promises and flashy sales pitches than objective demonstrations. Virtual reality can change that by putting a virtualised product directly into a consumer’s hands. What he sees is quite literally what he gets. The companies that use this capability to the fullest will be able to cultivate trust and loyalty through the power of authenticity.
I believe we have reached a turning point for VR. This is a technology that has evolved from a novelty attraction at the mall into the kind of technology that will soon be used every day in every facet of life. Nowhere is that truer than in the realm of business.
As VR further integrates with big data and cloud computing, it will become an increasingly convincing and capable experience. As users young and old begin to acclimate to the practical and philosophical implications of VR, they will expect the technology to address more of their wants and needs. I’m convinced that the businesses that acknowledge these facts early are poised to reap huge rewards — now and into the future.
Robert van der Meulen, technical evangelist, LeaseWeb
Image Credit: Knight Center for Journalism / Flickr