For some time now, we’ve all had a pretty crazy idea of what virtual reality is. This probably comes through extensive media coverage of new advancements, along with the various science fiction books and films that constantly feed the imagination.
Do any Star Trek fans recall the Holodeck, where visitors can enter virtual worlds of their own choosing? It doesn’t take much to appreciate that capabilities like these hold great potential for humanity. And while the simulated realities of The Matrix or Black Mirror are far from utopian, they are no less intriguing.
But it’s no good envisioning futuristic wonders if we are unable to put them into practice. So with that in mind, where are we in the progression of virtual reality and the technologies that are available to us, now and in the near future? Just how real is virtual reality for business use?
Let’s start by defining some key terms that are commonly used to refer to these new technologies.
- Virtual Reality (VR) describes a simulated computer-generated environment that is usually an audiovisual experience, but it can also incorporate touch, motion, and smell. This may use apparatus like head-mounted devices (HMDs), hand-held controls, and haptic devices, like digital gloves or motion platforms.
- Augmented Reality (AR) is the attempt to bring virtual reality into the real world. AR usually involves overlaying or projecting computer-generated text or visuals on objects or devices in the real world. Devices often include AR glasses or a Heads-up Display (HUD).
- Mixed Reality (MR) is a similar term that describes the blending of the real, perceived world with digital creation. MR differs from AR in that it allows users to interact with their digital devices so they are not only viewing projections.
- Extended Reality (XR) is the umbrella term more frequently used to encompass all the technologies of virtual reality, augmented reality, and mixed reality.
One thing that sets some of these technologies apart from the media we are more familiar with is Field of View (FOV). This describes how an environment can be viewed in terms of angle and degree.
The Degree of Freedom (DoF) determines the immersive experience of XR, and this is currently measured in level 3 (3DoF) and level 6 (6DoF). 3DoF allows movement by three axes, but only from one point, ie. the head, while 6DoF allows a greater range of movement. Merge and Google Cardboard are examples of headsets used in conjunction with smartphones that have 3DoF functionality. Daydream Standalone from Google has Worldsense 6DoF tracking.
The evolution of extended reality
Experiments in extended reality may go back to the nineteenth century, with stereoscopes that altered normal viewing. But the history of virtual reality really began in 1956 with the Sensorama. Created by cinematographer Morton Heilig, this invention used 3D visuals, sound, and vibration in an attempt to create an immersive experience beyond the movie theater.
This was followed up in the 1960s by the Sword of Damocles, which was the world’s first XR headset with computer-generated graphics, though it needed to be suspended from the ceiling. By the 1980s, VR headsets and gloves were manufactured for sale by VPL Research, and the term “virtual reality” was popularized.
In the 1990s, VR was introduced to arcade games, then console video games like Sega VR-1 and Nintendo Virtual Boy. These were not hugely successful, and things were quiet on the XR scene for the next decade.
2015 brought us Samsung Gear VR, a collaboration with Oculus, and HTC Vive, both virtual reality headsets. 2016 saw the release of the HoloLens Headset from Microsoft and PlayStation VR from Sony.
The years that followed saw more large companies venturing into XR technologies, including HP, Nvidia, and Pico. The majority of headsets rely on the use of chips from Qualcomm.
Something that sets apart the various head-mounted displays is whether they need to be tethered to a particular device or not. Oculus GO and Google Daydream do not require a connection to another device, while Oculus Rift or HTC Vive are tethered headsets. Pico Neo headsets are popular for enterprise use because they don’t need to be tethered and they can be centrally controlled.
Augmented reality made itself known to the world in 2016 with the release of the hugely popular Pokemon GO, which was taken up by smartphone users the world over. AR is commonly used with smartphones and smart glasses, but there are also many wearable, handheld, projection, and tracking devices used for more specific purposes.
Applications and adoptions in current use
Virtual and augmented reality have found applications across a wide range of industries and business fields. While initially they were mainly associated with gaming and entertainment, enthusiasm has recently declined in these areas, as shown by this recent industry report. But in other sectors, extended realities are in high demand.
One sector that calls for the extra help of XR is retail. Online shopping is growing by the day – growth which has only been accelerated by the restrictions of the coronavirus pandemic. VR and AR are able to address some of the difficulties of customers that cannot physically see or feel the products they wish to purchase.
One example of this is Ikea’s Augmented Reality App. It enables people who are shopping for furniture to see how items would look, and fit, in their homes. Other brands making the most of augmented or virtual reality technologies to improve the customer experience include Sephora, Apple, Nike, and L’Oreal.
Another sector that’s enjoying the benefits of XR is real estate. Buyers can be taken closer to the property (and the purchase) through virtual tours that show every corner of a property. Companies like Matterport carry out 360 digital capture then provide real estate agencies with life-like ‘walkthrough’ tours. Market leader Zillow has also developed its own 3D home tool.
Great achievements have been made in healthcare, thanks to XR technologies. Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy (VRET) has been used to treat post-traumatic stress disorder, while the Accuvein AV500 Vein Wipe makes the work of nurses quicker and simpler.
VR and AR have an important place for training, usually through simulation of real-world applications, which may also include telepresence or remote presence. This has already been applied to a wide range of fields, from the military to business. And it includes Hilton Hotel using Oculus for Business, to VR sports training Strivr that’s used by both the NBA and the NFL.
The need for training has opened up opportunities for budding XR businesses. Pixo VR is an XR company that made the move from gaming to training due to the increased demand and potential. VirtualSpeech is a program specifically developed for training in public speaking.
We have all seen the world become much more accustomed to video calls, white-boarding, and screen sharing in the time of COVID-19, but VR can take the experience even further with immersive collaboration. A major pet food company is using Oculus Quest headsets to let sales personnel to become more familiar with the products and processes in a way that is more affordable and safe.
XR is not only available to large corporations with the extra funds to invest. According to a recent survey, 40% of SMEs use XR in training. Immersed is a VR software that enables businesses of all sizes to take part with centralized, untethered programs that can be customized to meet specific needs.
The challenges for extended reality
The future’s looking good for extended reality, but there are still some hurdles that need to be overcome.
XR is a new and fast-growing industry and suffers a lack of talent relative to the high demand. And as a new technology, XR remains largely unregulated, but everything that takes place in any virtual environment could potentially have legal ramifications in the real world.
Online privacy and security are already a huge challenge for all businesses. But the expansion of XR may represent an additional vulnerability where personal behaviors and responses to virtual content are concerned.
An adverse impact on health is another concern, and this has been recorded in headaches, nausea, dizziness, and eye strain caused by the changing sensory input. These effects vary from user to user, and they can have a considerable impact.
The rise of XR is undeniable. According to data from PwC, XR’s boost to global GDP was $46.4 billion in 2019 and will increase to more than $1.5 trillion by 2030. This means that the upcoming decade will see a huge increase of attention on this relatively new industry.
In 2021, around 17% of Meta (formerly Facebook) worked in extended reality. The rebranding of the company is a way of gearing up for the Metaverse, which is the XR-enabled virtual environment that many view as the future of the internet. This will likely be built on Web 3.0 – the next iteration of the world wide web that will be decentralized and blockchain-powered.
Microsoft, Meta, and gaming platforms like Roblox are introducing XR technologies and readying themselves for the metaverse, which is a new virtual world that’s slowly but surely getting closer to realization.
Extended reality is soon to be noticed in many aspects of everyday life, and for businesses around the world, it will either be an important technology or an opportunity. We are at the brink of an exciting new technological revolution in which our two-dimensional tools are soon to become 3D and immersive. This year is set to introduce some exciting new trends in tech, which are sure to involve extended reality. What has for a long time been virtual is about to become real.