A few months ago, I had a chance to test out VR headsets at Centre Phi in Montreal. In one virtual environment, a Maasai girl walked directly toward me across the African savannah, seemingly making eye contact. Though the images weren’t as sharp and crisp as real life, it felt eerily real.
And this is only the beginning of what virtual reality will offer.
While VR clearly has applications in gaming and entertainment, the possibilities for business are intriguing — like, say, holographic business meetings. That’s a few years off, but VR is already making its way into the enterprise, and will become even more pervasive as hardware costs drop.
VR changing the reality of business
Already, more than 150 companies — including 52 of the Fortune 500 — are either testing or deploying AR/VR solutions, according to an analysis by Deloitte. The technology is making inroads in factories, warehouses and field work, where VR hardware (such as smart glasses or head-mounted displays) are overlaid with hands-free maps, instructions and even real-time feedback.
It will also allow field workers to collaborate with colleagues or experts in other locations, which is especially useful when dealing with specialized equipment (think aerospace, manufacturing, and oil and gas). While smart glasses and head-mounted displays aren’t exactly cheap, they’re a lot cheaper than having to fly a specialist to a remote location for troubleshooting.
A pipefitter out on the oil patch, for example, could wear a smart helmet — which would replace the traditional hard hat — to access instructions and 3D images while repairing or maintaining a pipe.
Potential applications abound
VR will bring 3D models to life in industries as diverse as automotive, construction and real estate — taking design to the next level. When developing a new product, you could see what it will look like much earlier on in the development process and even how consumers will react to it.
BMW, for example, is using VR to prototype virtual vehicles and solve engineering issues, rather than building full-scale (and expensive) models of those vehicles. This will also have an impact on sales and marketing. While BMW is using VR for prototyping, potential customers could use VR to test drive a vehicle before buying.
VR is already being used in the travel industry (Marriott International is one hotelier experimenting with the technology) so you can experience a hotel or destination before booking it. Retailers are even starting to use VR to create virtual showrooms and improve the customer experience.
Home improvement giant Lowe’s has started to roll out its ‘holoroom’ AR/VR experience in select stores across the U.S., which combines an iPad kitchen and bathroom design app with the Oculus DK2. Customers can virtually design their kitchen or bathroom, export their design to YouTube 360 and view it at home via Google Cardboard.
The potential applications for construction and real estate are mind-boggling — not to mention event planning. I can already imagine how the wedding industry could use VR to help couples pick out their venue and see exactly what it would look like, right down to the colour of the napkins.
Revolutionizing education & training
Aside from creating virtual experiences for customers, VR is also being used to create virtual experiences for employees. It’s finding a home in industries where training is expensive (or high risk), such as aviation, military and medical fields. Medical students, for example, could practice surgical procedures in a virtual setting. Japan Airlines is already experimenting with training co-pilots in a virtual cockpit — much cheaper, and safer, than a real one.
While holographic meetings are still at least a few years away, VR will add new capabilities to unified communications (UC), and developments are already in the works. Microsoft is working toward what it calls ‘holoportation,’ which essentially drops you into another reality — like a meeting room with colleagues in Singapore. And Facebook (through Oculus Rift) is developing technology that will allow workers to apply VR to existing workflows, like typing without a keyboard.
This doesn’t mean you need to run out and outfit your entire staff with VR headsets tomorrow. Figure out where, and if, it makes sense for your business — now, or a year from now. It’s early days, but it has the potential to change your business model or industry, so be prepared for your reality to one day include VR.
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