If you think virtual reality exists today primarily in the gaming industry, you are seriously behind the times! VR springing up all over, and in some rather surprising places. VR videos are already available on YouTube, Android PlayStore and the Apple Store. Equipment prices and quality vary dramatically, from Google’s inexpensive Cardboard to incredibly expensive and complex systems.
VR has been evolving since the first commercial flight simulator was patented in 1931. That invention helped train over 500,000 pilots during World War II. More recently, consumer VR has been used in games, particularly shooter games. As processing power has increased and gaming engines have evolved, the virtual worlds created for games have expanded significantly. Realism has increased through better light and shadows, along with an improved representation of the physics of moving objects.
In parallel with gaming, VR is expanding into many other areas, including these:
- Healthcare. Surgical Theater is working with UCLA, New York University, the Mayo Clinic and other major medical centers to use VR to help surgeons prepare for difficult operations. Virtual 3D models are constructed from MRIs, CAT scans and/or ultrasounds. These virtual models allow the surgeon to explore the site before the operation. The surgeon uses the model to locate tumors, explore injuries or identify other problems in order to plan the operation before the actual patient is anesthetized.
In Europe, stroke and brain-injury patients are using VR therapy during rehabilitation, to regain motor and cognitive skills. These tools permit individualized treatment plans that promote a higher “exercise dose” by using rewards, real-time feedback and other gamification techniques that increase engagement. MindMotionPro recently received the EU CE Marking, indicating that the product complies with relevant health, safety and environmental protection legislation and may be used throughout the EU.
- Mental health. Meditation promotes mental health by reducing stress and anxiety. Guided meditation is now available on the Oculus Rift, the HTC Vive, the Google Cardboard and other VR headsets. The University of Southern California Institute for Creative Technologies is testing virtual reality as a therapeutic tool for individuals with post-traumatic stress disorder and other panic conditions or phobias. USC developed Bravemind to enable patients to relive their experiences in a controlled manner while their stress responses are monitored. Based on successful initial results, Bravemind is being tested by other leading medical centers.
- Entertainment, travel and education. Oculus Cinema will enable friends to appear to be in the same virtual cinema in order to watch a movie and share the experience of watching together. Further into the future, the audience will be able to interact with movie characters.
Marriott is working on a VR app to offer potential customers the opportunity to virtually experience various destinations before traveling. Unimersiv is focusing on historical sites, creating a series of VR tours for the Colosseum, Acropolis, Parthenon, Stonehenge, Titanic, etc. These tours allow each site to be explored as it existed when it was built. Additional locations’ virtual sites and attractions will undoubtedly be added in the near future.
The British Museum offered a Virtual Reality Weekend in August 2015. Visitors were able to explore a Bronze Age roundhouse with a flickering fire and changing levels of light while they “handled” Bronze Age relics. The American Museum of Natural History allows students anywhere in the world to take virtual tours of selected museum exhibits, and other museums will soon follow.
The NBA is broadcasting selected games in VR, allowing fans to experience plays from the floor, augmented by instant replays, play-by-play commentary and a variety of statistics.
- Training. Virtual reality is an excellent tool when the task is dangerous or the equipment involved is expensive. The U.S. Army is piloting a fully immersive VR system to augment soldier training. The Army asserts that VR makes training more efficient and effective; the military scenario can be changed dynamically to provide different challenges. The actions of each participant can be tracked for later analysis. Moreover, after the initial scenario is developed, the system requires very little time to restart. Practicing the demolition of a building, for example, used to require days to rebuild the target structure before the next training exercise could occur. With VR, the scenario is just restarted, saving time and money and reinforcing trainees’ performance as they repeat the exercise.
Toyota’s TeenDrive365 VR application is a “distracted driving simulator.” It challenges people to drive safely when faced with virtual passengers talking, heavy traffic, text messages, road noise and other common distractions. The software runs on an Oculus Rift configured to respond to a stationary car’s steering wheel and pedals.
- Crime reconstruction. An article that appeared in the journal Forensic Science, Medicine, and Pathologytitled “The forensic holodeck: an immersive display for forensic crime scene reconstructions” describes an app that could be used to reconstruct a crime scene that could be explored by investigators. Later, according to the authors (several University of Zurich academics and a member of the Zurich police department), the forensic holodeck could be used to present evidence in the courtroom, helping juries understand how people, weapons or other objects moved through space and time. Eventually, these simulations will replace traditional photographs or models, making it easier for attorneys, judges and juries to understand the details of a complicated case.
- Architecture. Architectural design and construction firms are using VR to allow customers to experience the designed space before construction begins. During the design process, customers can “walk” through the facility and rearrange tables, cubicles, walls, equipment, etc. until they are satisfied that the proposed space meets their needs. Once a design is complete, the VR model can be used to help potential tenants, zoning boards and neighbors explore the building and the surrounding site.
- Collaboration. Virtual reality, augmented reality and mixed reality will form the basis for the next set of collaboration tools. These tools will enable people in different physical locations to interact with each other with virtual models of objects, and with physical objects “augmented” with information. Imagine engineering experts from around the globe conferring with an engineer at the South Pole who is trying to repair experimental equipment. The VR conference participants will be able to manipulate a virtual model of the faulty equipment while viewing its components, overlaid with design documentation.
The examples above represent a small subset of current and potential VR use. Many additional uses will emerge over the next few years as the technology continues to evolve. Expect graphics to improve, VR headsets to be freed from tether cables and astonishing levels of realism to become the norm. Definitions of virtual reality, augmented reality and mixed reality (and the distinctions between them) will also continue to evolve.
Virtual reality is in its infancy. But Facebook, Microsoft, MagicLeap and others are placing large bets on VR. Now is the time to be proactive. Add experienced gamers to IT staff. Acquire and experiment with the technology. Brainstorm how your organization could leverage this technology to improve operations. Look for pilot sites to test VR in a real business environment. Make sure IT has the expertise to guide the process when marketing, R&D or other parts of the business eventually want to bring VR into the enterprise. It will happen sooner than you think.
VR is not just for games anymore. And since it’s already becoming available in so many places, you need to start now!
Bart Perkins is managing partner at Louisville, Ky.-based Leverage Partners Inc., which helps organizations invest well in IT. Contact him at BartPerkins@LeveragePartners.com.