2016 was the year that Virtual Reality became consumer-friendly with the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, and PlayStation VR headsets hitting the shelves. These are some of the applications outside of the world of gaming that will be key for the development of this hugely exciting platform.
Last year saw the resurgence of what will inevitably become one of the most every-day-life changing pieces of technology of our generation: the Virtual-Reality (VR) headset. This may sound like a ridiculous statement, especially considering how the launch of these devices didn’t exactly light the world on fire; but new and expensive technology rarely does during the early stage of a product life-cycle.
While VR technology is not a new concept (inventors have been attempting to create immersive aural and visual experiences since the 1950’s), it has never been as accessible to the general public as it is today. Sony confirmed earlier this year that PS VR is selling better than they expected.
In 1995, Nintendo’s Virtual Boy (remember that?) promised to be the first portable VR device capable of providing 3D graphics, but was a commercial failure. SEGA developed a similar VR headset a few years earlier which never even made it to market! So what’s the difference between the failure of these early prototypes and the success of the present day VR hardware? The fact that we now have the tools to create experiences outside of the world of gaming that will fundamentally change the way in which we live and work.
Education, Education, Education
One of the sectors in which VR will make its most profound effect is education. Imagine the potential for students to learn in a simulated classroom, take virtual field trips to famous monuments, or attend university seminars from a professor who is thousands of miles away without having to be physically present (I definitely might have made it to more lectures had this been an option). Institutions of learning which might normally be expensive and/or infeasible to attend for aspiring students would suddenly become an option. Once the hardware proliferates and becomes less expensive, it will lower the barrier of entry for anyone who wants access to an education. There are already products such as Google Daydream VR and Samsung Gear VR that offer viable and much more reasonably priced alternatives.
And this is not the only aspect of learning that makes use of VR; it has already being adapted for use in simulations for aspiring students in fields such as Medicine (surgery in particular), Engineering, and Aviation.
Tourism applications could also be hugely popular in VR. Being able to take simulated tours around a foreign city may not live up to the real thing… But it’s a whole lot more convenient, and whole lot less expensive than travelling internationally. Exploring a museum in Madrid, or walking along a beach in the Bahamas could all be accomplished in a single afternoon, and from the comfort of your own sofa.
Expanding on this to a planetary level, VR would be able to show those of us who will (sadly) never be astronauts some truly out-of-this-world experiences. NASA has already demonstrated use of VR technology at last year’s CES, where in partnership with Oculus Rift, they created a virtual app to show exactly what astronauts will be seeing when they ride the 325ft elevator to the top of the currently under construction Space Launch System (SLS). Considering that a ride with a sub-orbital space tourism company such as Virgin Galactic will set you back about $250,000, VR might be the best option for people who want to explore the cosmos without spending their life savings.
Social Media and VR
Communication and social media will also change significantly with the successful uptake of VR technology. It’s worth mentioning that Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, decided to buy Oculus Rift for the not insignificant sum of $2 Billion in March 2014, before it was a commercial product. Now Facebook has a dedicated “Social VR” team working on developing ideas for software that will work alongside their social network, and most likely the other popular applications such as Instagram and WhatsApp.
“VR is going to be the most social platform”, Zuckerberg declared earlier this year. “Facebook with Oculus, are committed to this for the long term. We’ve recently created new teams at Facebook to build the next generation of social apps and VR.”
It’s not hard to imagine these types of apps allowing users to interact and talk in the same virtual space, no matter how far the difference between them in reality.
This ease of connectivity will also change standard practices for business and commerce. VR conferences and meetings will become commonplace. Retailers will be able to show a product in a virtual space in which prospective customers can view it before deciding to buy. ASOS, the biggest online fashion store, have already announced plans to move into the virtual space through a partnership with Trillenium, a UK based VR Development Company. Car dealerships could create test-drive experiences for new cars, while hotels or estate agents could give virtual tours of properties. The possibilities are endless.
VR and the Movies
Entertainment and media outside of the gaming industry will benefit hugely from VR technology and this is likely to be one of the first sectors in which the public will notice the use of these devices. Major film studios are already using VR in their promotional campaigns for new movies, one example being last year’s Assassin’s Creed movie, which had an experience available on Oculus which dropped the user in 15th Century Spain to witness the storming of a medieval castle. I cannot wait to see what VR promotions are attached to director Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One next year, a story which takes place mostly inside a giant virtual-reality world (Spielberg is an advisor to Los Angeles based studio The Virtual Reality Company).
The cinema experience is already quite easily replicated in VR, and this is starting to be applied to concerts and sporting events too. In the not too distant future you will be able to see your favourite band perform, or football team play, and feel like you’re there watching in the stadium. In fact, Sony completed a deal for naming rights of a well-known music venue (now known as the PlayStation Theatre) in New York towards the end of last year- it would be a surprise if live streaming concerts for their PS VR owners was not included as part of the arrangement. Even the BBC have become early adopters of the tech, and broadcasted last year’s Rio Olympics in VR.
The Virtual-Reality industry is forecast to be worth over 400 million USD by 2018; games may be the best way to get these devices into people homes to begin with, but the real growth of VR will be driven by applications that take advantage of the above industries, and change the way we interact with everyday activities.
Before he purchased Oculus Rift, Mark Zuckerberg said “Virtual-reality was once the dream of science fiction. But the internet was also once a dream, and so were computers and smartphones.” Considering that Facebook is looking to invest $3 billion into VR over of the next decade, it is more than likely that this virtual-reality dream is on the brink of becoming a not-so-virtual reality.