New applications for virtual reality go far beyond gaming
No longer fantasy, Virtual Reality has incredible potential to change the way we play, communicate and learn.
5 min read
The future is made of 'virtual insanity’. Who can forget the prediction made by Jamiroquai in their 1996 hit? Whilst the music has surely stood the test of time, the concept of virtual and augmented reality that they railed against has never really happened, despite being constantly touted as the next big thing in technology. After many false dawns, there are signs that 2016 was a breakthrough year for the technology world but will it be a revolution, and how far will it reach beyond gaming?
The huge rise in the processing power of semiconductors and screen resolution has resulted in cheap handheld devices such as smart phones which are perfect for virtual reality (VR). The games industry has jumped on these and launched a series of games and devices to exploit the new possibilities. 2016 saw Nintendo introduce Pokémon Go, where players could interact with virtual characters that appear around them via their mobile phones. This was a phenomenon, with 500m downloads in the three months after launch. Headsets from Sony and others have taken the technology further and put users right inside the games they are playing.
Are there any downsides to society? As well as distracted players bumping into things, the games might cause people to retreat into virtual worlds; however research by Stanford University did find Pokémon Go users walking 25% more than non-users, so it depends on the game and how it is played. Gaming represents a small part of the potential for this technology, with many industry fields exploring the possibilities it offers.
If you were in Sweden during the Rio Olympics you would have had the opportunity to watch over 120 hours of the Olympics in the 360° virtual reality format. In the UK, Sky – fresh from the success of ‘Westworld’ which is set in an augmented reality amusement park populated by androids (spoiler: the androids go bad) – has a new virtual reality studio. The firm launched its 360° video virtual reality app in October 2016, with an initial 22 films available. It expects to grow the content available rapidly across sports, movies, news and entertainment, from F1 racing, through ‘visiting’ Tutankhamun’s Tomb and following the English National Ballet’s production of Giselle.
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To offset the concern that VR will have people locking themselves away in a lonely world of make believe, social media giants such as Facebook are using it to bring people together in that you can join your friends in an artificial or re-created location, and inevitably take selfies to post to social media to show off to everyone else.
TRAINING AND DEVELOPMENT
Industrial applications already in use include Formula 1 racing teams and aircraft pilots training and testing developments on highly realistic simulators. Going forward, there is also huge potential amongst many highly skilled, safety-critical areas such as nuclear engineering, weapons and bomb disposal, and the training of surgeons. Even non-critical industries can benefit as, for example, welders could be trained by VR, which means money doesn’t have to be spent on materials to practise on, and the trainees can repeat the task as many times as they need to. Some of these applications are already in development.
SALES AND MARKETING
Companies are also finding that VR can be used as a powerful sales and marketing tool, to allow them to engage with their customers in new ways – with the customer becoming an active participant instead of merely a spectator. A client can experience the architect’s new building, rather than simply viewing a 3-D model, and understand how the building will work and make changes before building starts. Hotels or travel agents can provide VR guides to visitors.
A VR headset could act as a virtual concierge, showing clients places they could visit. In E-commerce the customer can ‘see’ how a new piece of furniture will fit in their house and car buyers are able to configure and test out their top-end car model without leaving the showroom; and Marriott Hotels have a ‘teleporter’ which lets users step into a booth, wear an Oculus Rift headset and visit downtown London or a beach in Hawaii, and also allows users to feel wind in their hair and sun on their faces.
EMPATHY – THE EMOTIONAL POWER OF VIRTUAL REALITY
The Za’atari Refugee Camp in Jordan is home to over 80,000 Syrians fleeing war and violence. Half of these are children. Clouds Over Sidra is the story of a 12 year old girl who has lived there since the summer of 2013. The film follows her to school, to her makeshift tent and even to the football pitch. This is the first ever film shot in virtual reality for the UN, using the medium to generate greater empathy and new perspectives on people living in conditions of great vulnerability. Its powerful capacity to allow anyone on a global scale to experience life within a refugee camp has the ability to inspire the message of hope among not only the millions displaced but also those motivated to act.
It is early days for many of these applications and it is difficult to know whether the mass market will embrace VR but early signs are good. It is too soon to say who the winners will be but we do know one thing that has already started to increase – use of data. As anyone who has ever had their iPhone borrowed by their child to play Pokémon Go will know, these games drain your battery and bank balance in equal measure.
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