The Business of Virtual Reality

02 July, 2013 by Ed Greig | EngineeringStrategyRetail

At our Digital Studios in Clerkenwell we are creating and spending time in virtual worlds, looking at the ways in which Virtual Reality (VR) could be used within the enterprise. As well as it’s uses in gaming, entertainment and medicine, VR has the potential to be used within three main areas in the enterprise, simulating things that don’t exist, simulating training scenarios and visualizing data. We’ll explore these in more detail later but first a bit of background about VR.

Back to the future

Virtual Reality has undergone a renaissance in the last three years after a long spell in the wilderness following it’s nauseating attempt to break into the mainstream back in the 80s. The person behind it is 22 year old Palmer Luckey, who announced back in 2012 his intention to build a head mounted VR display for gaming. There was a brief post on the VR Forum that he moderates, then John Carmack, of Doom fame, got involveda hugely successful Kickstarter campaign was launched and raised $2.4m, before in 2014 Oculus was bought by Facebook for an eyewatering $2bn. Valve was working on their own HMD (Head Mounted Display) at the same time, but were keeping it under wraps and not initially planning for it be commercially released.

This leap forward has been made possible because of the huge strides in accelerometer, gyroscope, processor and screen technologies within the smartphone industry. The easiest way to see this is to try out a simple headset like Google Cardboard, which uses nothing but a cardboard headset, some lenses and your phone to create a virtual reality headset that actually delivers a pretty convincing experience. (Playing the horror game Sisters with headphones on is genuinely terrifying).

Mindblowing

Whereas the VR of old was clunky and slow to react or prohibitively expensive, this new wave of headsets deliver a wide field of view, high resolution screens and unnoticeable latency. This gives the user a sense of presence and immersion that has not been possible up until now. It tricks your sub-concsious into thinking that you are actually experiencing what your eyes are seeing. If you want to learn about this in more depth then check out Oculus Chief Scientist Michael Abrash’s talk about the subject at Oculus Connect last year.

But what could the rebirth of VR mean? It’s certainly going to have a big impact on gaming, if this year’s E3 is anything to go by and it could also have an impact on other forms of entertainment such as films, with Oculus setting up a studio and Hollywood releasing several shorts as well. The extent of the impact will depend on the consumer take up of the Virtual Reality devices. Given the combined advertising muscle of the big companies who are throwing their hats/HMDs into the ring (Facebook + OculusGoogleValve + HTC,MicrosoftSonySamsung) as well as smaller players like Razr and Star, I think that a lot of people will purchase a headset. However businesses don’t need to wait for VR to become mainstream, they can start testing and taking advantage of it now.

Virtual enterprise

There are three major areas where we see VR being used in the enterprise. The first is about simulating things that don’t exist, for example architects creating a virtual version of a building’s plans to allow walkthroughs, or a retailer testing new store layouts before putting them in place. We are working with clients on our number of projects in this area.

The major game changer though is VR’s potential for use in training. Combined with the Leap Motion or other sensors it can be used for technical training where the real thing might be dangerous, for example engineering or surgery. However, the immersive experience of VR means that it is capable of effecting a greater behavioral change on participants than other media. This means it can be used to train people in soft skills as well, Chris Milk calls it “the ultimate empathy machine”. That means that if your company has struggled to get employees to take on board messages delivered by slides or video then VR may offer an impactful alternative.  We are currently test shooting 360 video with a 6 GoPro rig in order to create interactive VR experiences which we plan to use for training both for ourselves and our clients. Some brands, such as North Face, are using this technique to create amazing virtual experiences to inspire their customers.

The third area is for the visualization of data and there are a number of ways we are exploring how to do this, along the lines of Fidelity Labs StockCity. Our VR Store, that we created for the Adobe Summit, was an interesting example of using data in an interesting way. It collected data from a customer’s behaviour in a virtual store, fed the data to the Adobe Marketing Suite and then received back a persona that it could then use to customize the store.

Take the Leap

There’s many other exciting developments within the (virtual) world(s) of virtual reality that we don’t have time to explore now. The medical applications, helping with rehabilitation after a strokepain reduction in burns victims and to help deal with certain phobias. Also the idea of increasing immersion, using fans, omni-directional treadmills or dedicated rooms/holodecks.

The point is that the industry is moving fast but we cannot yet be sure about the scale of consumer take up. In the meantime though it pays to start looking at the technology and starting to see what benefits it can deliver for you. As always with something like this we’d suggesting starting with a small proof of concept, as we have done for all of our VR projects. Palmer Luckey has predicted that business will be the last sector to adopt VR, after entertainment, education and medicine but this is only because he thinks that no suit wearer will be brave enough to push forward something like this. The choice is yours and I would urge you to grab it with two (virtual) hands.