There’s nothing like the real thing. But what if the real thing isn’t accessible or affordable or practical? A virtual version would be the next best thing. That’s the promise of virtual reality (VR).
There are many technical definitions of virtual reality. However in layman’s terms, it’s basically a computer-generated environment that’s a realistic simulation of the actual thing. You see it all the time in movies and not just science fiction ones.
If you’re a fan of James Bond, you’d probably recall a funny scene in Die Another Day when Miss Moneypenny, the secretary to Bond’s boss, finally fulfils her wish of kissing the dashing hero. But we find out that it was just a VR simulation when she’s interrupted by Q, the gadget master in charge of research and development.
THE FUTURE OF VR
In the real world, VR tends to be associated with games. That’s because the earliest and most common use of this technology has been for games. Unfortunately, the hardware required for VR games (Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, Sony Playstation VR) is both pricey and a bit complicated to set up. To make matters worse, there isn’t a whole lot of content available. VR games are niche. Therefore it’s unsurprising then that VR has yet to take the world by storm.
Is VR destined to be dumped into the dustbin of technology trends like 3D TV, which held a lot of promise but never really took off? On the surface, there are a lot of similarities. For example, both require consumers to don some kind of eyewear. And as mentioned earlier, content is in short supply. But there’s one crucial difference: 3D TV technology is used for a singular purpose which is to deliver a 3D experience for shows. In contrast, VR technology can be used for a variety of purposes across many industries — not just gaming.
Many top tech companies including Samsung, Sony and Google are big believers of VR. Another true believer is Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook fame. His company paid a whopping US$2 billion (RM8.42 billion) to acquire Oculus in 2014!
Although VR has not exactly taken off yet, Zuckerberg is convinced that there’s a big future ahead of VR in the long run. He was quoted last year as saying: “We are betting that Virtual Reality is going to be an important technology. I am pretty confident about this. I honestly don’t know is how long it will take to build this ecosystem. It could be five years, it could be 10, 15 or 20 years. My guess is that it will be at least 10. It took 10 years to go from building the initial Smartphone to reaching the mass market. BlackBerry came out in 2003 and it didn’t get to about a billion units until 2013. So I can’t imagine it would be much faster for VR.”
It’s not clear exactly what Zuckerberg has in mind for VR but you can be sure he’s not only thinking of games. Just as Facebook permeates our personal, working and social lives so will VR, eventually.
If you think about the potential of VR, which allows you to have a realistic, immersive experience just by donning some computerized equipment, you can easily imagine how it will become embedded into every consumer sector out there. Let’s look at a few real-life examples of VR which will give you a taste of things to come.
NEWS: THE NEW YORK TIMES
News is an obvious sector that will be impacted by VR because of the experience it can deliver. About two years ago, The New York Times launched a VR project called The Displaced that allowed readers to experience the harrowing journey children displaced by war go through.
It’s been estimated that some 30 million children have been driven from their homes because of war. The Displaced told the story of three of those children — from Sudan, Syria and Ukraine — and detailed their tragic stories in an immersive documentary that put viewers inside refugee camps and villages, where they could witness first-hand the lives of these refugees.
The VR film was available for download for mobile app and Google Cardboard, a remarkably cheap device that converts Android smartphones into VR headsets. In conjunction with the release of this VR film, NYT distributed one million Google Cardboard viewers free of charge to home-delivery subscribers.
NYT has since gone on to create other VR films such as The Land of Salt And Fire which allows readers to be transported to “the hottest place on earth, where camel caravans move salt across the vast plains, and active geothermal zones turn into a landscape of psychedelic colours” and The Antarctica Collection, which consists of four VR films that explore the highest, driest and coldest continent on Earth.
Lowe’s is a big home improvement company with well over 2,000 stores across the USA, Canada and Mexico. It uses VR technology in its key stores in Boston and Canada for “Holoroom How To” — a VR set-up which allows customers to learn how to “do it yourself” when it comes to tasks like tiling a bathroom or painting a fence.
Previously, Lowe’s had used VR as a means to help customers visualise their kitchen and bath renovations. “Holoroom How To” takes the VR experience to another level. Lowe’s research had shown that not all customers had the confidence or skills needed to embark on DIY projects.
To experience “Holoroom How To”, customers wear a HTC Vive headset and a set of controllers. The simulation walks the customer through each aspect of the task at hand until they complete the task. The haptic feedback, such as the simulated vibration of the drill, makes the experience feel very realistic without the messiness or cost of an actual physical DIY experiment.
What if you want to test-drive a Volvo XC90 SUV but there’s not a Volvo showroom nearby? Or what if you have no intention of buying one but you would just like the experience of driving it? Volvo has made this possible through VR.
Volvo Reality places you in the driver’s seat and takes you on a drive through the countryside. You can view the stunning landscape outside or check out the accessories and interiors of the car. As you look around, you can see everything you would see if you were really driving an actual car.
Like the NYT, Volvo uses the low-cost Google Cardboard platform, so that everybody can experience it. You don’t have to own an expensive Oculus Rift or HTC Vive. All you have to do is download a Volvo Reality app and insert your phone into the Google Cardboard “headset” and you’re ready to go on your virtual drive.
For seriously hardcore car lovers, this will never replace the real thing but for the rest of us, it might actually be better than the real thing. When you’re physically driving a car, you have to pay full attention to the road. When you’re doing it in VR you can look all around the car and spend some time admiring its stylish interiors without worrying about being in an accident. It’s all safe.
I’ve highlighted just three real-life examples of how VR can be used in different industries. There are plenty of examples from other industries. You can easily imagine how it could be utilised for educational, medical and entertainment purposes, among other things. Actually, there probably isn’t any industry VR can’t touch in a positive way. The basic premise is simple. Put on a headset to enter a whole new environment. The possibilities are endless.
Oon Yeoh is a consultant with experiences in print, online and mobile media. reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org