We’ve all heard about the concept of virtual reality (VR), which immerses us in a completely virtual environment. Not everyone is as familiar with its cousin, augmented reality (AR), but in some ways it’s even more amazing because it overlays computer-generated digital elements on top of the real, physical environment. This gives us, in many ways, the best of both worlds. AR allows you to interact with these digitized constructs without losing touch with your actual surroundings.
Most people think of VR and AR in the context of computer gaming and entertainment media, and those are the applications that have been the driving force behind VR/AR development since its conception in the 1930s, although VR as a business application has existed for decades in the medical, industrial design, flight simulation and military training fields.
Today, VR and AR are beginning to gain acceptance as more than just a sci-fi inspired toy. In the consumer space, Facebook’s Oculus Rift, Samsung’s Gear VR, Sony’s Playstation VR and Microsoft’s HoloLens are making it feasible and affordable for the masses to experience a form of virtual reality, and Google has dipped its toes into the AR waters first with its short-lived Google Glass project and then with Project Aura and most recently its Tango AR enhanced smart phone.
At CES 2017 earlier this month, the AR/VR category had a reported 261 exhibitors. Many of these, however, were focused on gaming, because to paraphrase the linked article and echo the old quote attributed to bank robber Willie Sutton, “that’s where the money is.” But will these devices (or others based on them) find their way into the enterprise, as so many other consumer technologies, such as wireless networking, machine learning and AI, have done?
First, a look back
Before we talk about enterprise applications of VR and AR that are currently in use or feasible in the near future, it helps to understand how we got where we are today. Like so many of today’s technological marvels, VR started out as an idea that was brought to life inside readers’ heads by science fiction writers as early as the 1930s.
Tad Williams’ Otherland trilogy, first published in 1996, described a virtual world one could enter completely. The Tom Clancy-branded Netforce series of books, launched in 1999, popularized the idea of immersive VR as a serious tool, for in this case, an elite government unit set up sometime in the future to investigate and combat crime on the Internet (think CSI: Cyber, over a decade and a half earlier but with more advanced – and even less realistic – technology). On TV, Star Trek’s holodeck, a room-sized VR interface, was famously used both for the crew’s entertainment and for mission critical simulations.
Back in the real world, progress was slow. The first “VR” systems were little more than a way to experience 3D photographs, and later 3D video, with some minimal interaction. VR headsets for gaming emerged in the 1990s. The SAS Cube (SAS3) was developed in the early 2000s. The first prototype of the Oculus Rift, generally recognized as the headset that kicked off the current VR trend, was created in 2010, although the product wasn’t commercially released until 2016.
Today, many of us use VR without even knowing it. The stereoscopic 3D version of StreetView in Google Earth is a rudimentary form of VR, as it provides a three dimensional “world” that we can navigate through. If you haven’t done so, check out your home in the this view sometime; you might be amazed at the amount of detail. Now you can poke around (virtually) in your neighbor’s back yard, without having to climb over the fence – and they can see into yours. Like any technology, VR has both upsides and downsides.
AR and MR (Mixed Reality) allow you to stay anchored in the real world while also benefiting from virtual overlays. The most common example is the “heads up display” (HUD) available on some automobiles that overlay important information such as speed, time, and status gauges transparently over your view out the windshield, so that you don’t have to take your eyes off the road to get that information.
Getting down to business
VR and AR can bring a number of benefits to the business world in many different ways:
- Virtual tours
- Design and testing
- Product demo, marketing, and sales
- Data analysis
- Collaboration and meetings
Training: VR can be particularly useful in training new employees on tasks that either pose a danger for beginners in real life, or involve a high cost (or both). For example, someone who is learning to operate a new, complicated piece of machinery can make mistakes in the virtual environment that would result in injury to the person and/or damage to the expensive machine.
Employees in service occupations can engage in realistic role playing scenarios to develop their skills before putting them to use in the field. Later, they can train on real equipment with AR overlays to guide them. VR and AR could very well become the standard method of training tomorrow’s workforce.
Virtual tours: VR enables businesses to provide a realistic look at the “inner workings” of their environments to members of the press, job candidates, partners, and others without the expense of bringing them to the location and without the potential risks (physical or security risks) of allowing them onto the premises. Virtual tours are less time consuming and are appropriate for people with physical challenges that might make it difficult to navigate the actual locations.
Virtual tours are popular in the real estate business, and are being used by many colleges and universities to introduce potential and newly accepted students to their campuses.
Product demo, marketing and sales: Want to give a potential customer the experience of driving that $400,000 Lamborghini but don’t trust him to take the wheel for real? Do it in VR. Want to show off the features of a new fashionable wearable computing device, the use of which isn’t entirely intuitive? Use AR to overlay the sleek lines with text that tells where to touch for which action. VR is already being used for trade show demos.
Design and testing: Building physical prototypes of a new product can be very expensive, and once it’s done, the design must be tested for usability. VR makes it possible for a company to create a virtual prototype with which users can interact, and many design flaws can be identified and tweaked before money is invested in creating physical prototypes. This can reduce development costs and result in higher quality end products. In fact, in a late 2015 survey, product design and development were named as the most common application of VR and AR among manufacturers.
Products aren’t the only things that companies design. VR can also be useful in designing the physical layout of a facility, placement of equipment or furnishings, or the architecture of a network. In fact, VR has the potential to dramatically change the way designers work.
Data analysis: Data visualization is all the rage now; because most of us are visually-oriented, presentation of data in graphical format makes it easier to grasp complex concepts or spot patterns. Interactive visualization lets you drill down into the details. Visualization tools that utilize virtual and augmented reality take this a step further and help to address the cognition and perception problems involved in visualizing Big Data. An immersive VR environment with movement in three dimensions can overcome some of the limitations of the human brain.
Collaboration and meetings: A large number of enterprise employees are plagued by a seemingly constant stream of meetings, some more productive than others. Meetings are time-consuming and expensive, especially when travel is involved – which can be the case with the rise in remote workers and the global workforce. Thus, more and more companies are conducting meetings online. However, this often results in participants being less engaged, and we miss a lot that we would see if we all gathered in the same room.
VR can simulate that room and allow us to interact with each other (or at least with each other’s avatars) more fully. If you don’t want to be completely lost in cyberspace during your meetings (because, let’s face it, one of the big advantages of remote meetings is that we can multitask), AR can provide us with additional information about fellow participants or topics under discussion.
It's getting real, folks
Sci-fi books, movies and TV tend to show us only the most dramatic applications of VR, either the utopian view of virtual reality worlds where we can fly through the air to exotic lands and engage in hassle-free relationships with handsome or beautiful avatars, or on the other hand, the dire worst case scenarios in which we find ourselves locked inside virtual nightmares pumped directly into our brains by evil oppressive governmental tyrants.
The ways in which VR and AR will actually change our lives--especially our work lives--might not be quite as sensational, but there’s no doubt these technologies will have a big impact on the way enterprises do business in the future.