Virtual reality technologies have been around for decades. But in recent months magazines have been flooded with promises that VR is about to take off.
We’ve reached new levels of hype about VR this year, mainly led by consumer headsets and gaming platforms.
Facebook’s Oculus Rift, PlayStation’s ‘Project Morpheus’ headset and HTC Vive are all set to hit the shops in the first half of 2016, all primarily aimed at gamers.
What is VR?
Firstly it might be useful to define precisely what virtual reality is.
Virtual reality technologies are all about creating a virtual world that users can interact with via computer simulations of 3D images or environments in a seemingly physical way – using equipment like headsets or gloves.
VR and AR technologies are often clumped together – understandably so as they share a number of features. However, as the name suggests, augmented reality is more about mixing (or augmenting) virtual reality and real life: images that combine with the real world.
Unlike VR, AR technologies are explicitly designed so users can distinguish between the two. VR users are engaged in a fully immersive experience in a fabricated environment, while AR users are just adding layers to the real world.
Could non-gamers get in on the action too?
“From retail to education, travel to e-commerce, the potential VR applications are limitless,” says Sasa Marinkovic, head of VR at semiconductor firm AMD. And he is far from alone in his optimism.
Microsoft, one of the better-established vendors in the enterprise market, is pitching its AR HoloLens headset firmly in the B2B space.
However there is no reason that any of the other tech companies – be they big vendors or startups – couldn’t aim their products at enterprise too.
Supply chain modelling, helping warehouse workers pick out goods and running through ‘what if’ scenarios could all be potential uses, according to a blog post by OpenText.
“The most important use for virtual reality that we see in the business world will be training and development,” Mark Sutherland, managing director of virtual tech specialists G2G3, says.
VR could be ideal for environments that are expensive, dangerous or complex to simulate in other ways, for example emergency services training, he adds.
Indeed, VR is already used by a number of militaries around the world for precisely that purpose.
The UK armed forces have used VR to train personnel for years, for example to recreate the experience of taking a parachute jump in different conditions, adjusting for wind, rain, fog or snow, at different times of day or to test trainees for what they do in situations where a jump goes wrong.
It is currently being used to train medical staff, oil workers and teach students. But the potential audience is much bigger.
“VR also unlocks some exciting opportunities in the B2B space, with entirely new ways to interact with clients and employees,” says Capgemini’s head of digital, Alex Smith-Bingham.
“We are already seeing some practical use cases emerge, such as one of our Oil and Gas customers combining different data sources with a virtual experience. This allows their workers to walk in the 3D virtual world of a real oil platform and learn to deal with dangerous situations”, he adds.
One of the most interesting applications for VR beyond gaming is in the field of healthcare and medicine.
It is being used to train physicians but perhaps the most interesting application is to treat psychological disorders.
VR is now one of the primary treatments for post-traumatic stress disorder. It has been used for a range of cognitive therapies, for example to treat phobias or anxiety-related issues.
As far back as 2006 the UK’s National Institute of Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) recommended VR be used in the NHS for patients with mild or moderate depression, instead of antidepressants.
VR allows therapists to use visual and auditory stimuli to recreate the specific hazards that trigger patients’ conditions, but in a controlled environment where the therapist can monitor the patient’s reaction.
Success rates seem to vary from 66 to 90 percent, making VR cheaper and more effective than many of the alternatives.
Naturally, businesses are particularly interested in whether VR could be used to boost sales: from fashion to estate agents, car showrooms or selling boats.
“Just look at how Alton Towers is using virtual reality as a draw for its latest rollercoaster, and how Audi is using VR to let customers experience what their new car interior could feel like,” says Smith-Bingham.
British designer Allison Crank recently unveiled the Reality Theatre, a VR shopping centre, which was displayed during Dutch Design Week 2015. VR could open up access to top-flight fashion events, letting you watch a catwalk from your own home or create a virtual fitting room for you to try out clothes.
VR fans also point to the potential it has to play in the property market.
“It can improve the ‘viewing’ process for potential buyers and turn ‘your room’ into ‘showroom’ without ever leaving the comfort of the couch. This creates business efficiency, as you will not need to travel to and from properties,” says Marinkovic.
So will VR/AR take off in the enterprise?
Despite all the potential uses (‘potential’ being the operative word), it is too early to tell if VR and AR will become mainstream in the business sector.
“For most traditional industries, it is not yet time to make bet-your-brand investments in virtual reality,” Paul Roehrig, global MD of Cognizant's 'Center for the Future of Work', admits.
However it makes sense for organisations to observe how some of the pioneers in their industry are using VR/AR, build up use cases, and if they can see a benefit for their business, try a pilot.
As with any new technology, if it can enhance customer experience, generate efficiencies or improve performance, it’s worth giving it a go.
“Little or no business impact is always a possible scenario, but it is unlikely, and we should — at this true dawn of the digital age — allow ourselves a period of discovery and innovation,” Roehrig adds.