VR is the next big thing, but not in the way you think.

Credit: Khoamartin | Dreamstime.com

After decades of hype, the gaming and entertainment world can take most of the credit for bringing virtual reality (VR) closer to the mainstream. But in recent years, VR is making huge strides in enterprise of all places. The falling hard costs enable experimentation in a range of fields. Developments in manufacturing, customer service and healthcare mean VR has the potential to change almost all facets of our lives.

Out of the game and into the office

VR is whipping up a frenzy in the gaming industry. The biggest esports event in Australia this year, Intel Extreme Masters, (IEM) will highlight the enthusiasm for VR first hand and events like PAX Australia tell a similar story.

From the everyday consumer’s perspective, VR is still very much an expensive toy for tech junkies and enthusiasts. With the average headset retailing upwards of $1200, (albeit new Microsoft ones are coming in for half that price) it’s unlikely you’ll be investing right away unless you’re a hardcore gamer. Cardboard and smartphone-compatible counterparts exist, but the content is limited to the kind of device you have, for example, your current phone needs to be smart enough for VR. This experience is more like a 3D environment than a full room scale experience that PCs give you. This is changing. While the biggest VR spenders in Australia are about 16 years-old according to Telsyte, the audience is growing, with a quarter of all households expected to have at least one headset by 2021.

Outside the lounge room, organisations are anticipating an increase in adoption. 70 per cent of the world’s most valuable brands from Google to Microsoft are going virtual, investing a total of $2.3 AUD billion in application and hardware development in 2016 alone, according to PWC. It’s not just the big end of town, either. The relatively accessible upfront investments free smaller enterprises to play in this space, with retail, design and healthcare at the forefront.  With VR still in its infancy, there’s an opportunity for early innovators to get the jump on their competitors and reshape their offerings and customer services.

Seeing things from the customer’s eyes

With VR set to be worth around  $110 billion by 2025, according to Goldman Sachs, it’s no surprise businesses want in on the action. They need to use caution as when VR is done badly, it’s a nightmare for consumers, which is why customer experience is a central part of the developmental process. Things such as 2-D or 3-D rendering, duration of time within a virtual space or whether being stationary or walking around a virtual store is better, are all considerations for developing VR experiences for customers.

Credit: Maksim Prochan | Dreamstime.com

Holding onto the future

Allowing customers to see your product without it technically existing creates many opportunities for businesses. You get insights into what the people want without needing to build the same product over and over. Virtual prototypes are far more effective than just showing them concept images or a dummy model. They can look at the product every which way and give honest feedback. Prototypes also work on a larger scale with people able to walk through entire buildings before the first brick is laid. This lets you snuff out kinks and errors before they turn into an expensive problem and get your products out to the market faster.  It also gives you a sense of volume in the room you can’t get on a 2D image.

Virtual healing

You might think virtual training is expensive and cumbersome but it’s a far cheaper and safer option for many whose real-life training programs require access to high-tech equipment or exposure to high-risk environments. In the healthcare industry, future doctors and surgeons need to train for stressful situations that are hard to simulate in a lecture theatre or classroom. VR training is much closer to a real-world environment and is far more engaging for staff to interact with than manuals or shadowing a superior. One US children’s hospital tried VR training and found students could remember 80 per cent of the information a full year after undergoing the program. Compare this to their regular training where they retained only 20 per cent and it’s obvious to see just how effective VR training is.

VR is not only an invaluable learning tool, but it can augment the work of doctors. Already surgeons use VR to manipulate robotic arms in intricate procedures. Eventually, such surgery can be performed remotely with doctors not even being in the same room (or country) as the patient, improving healthcare in regional or under resourced areas.  

So what’s next?

Of course, this is only the beginning. As the quality of VR improves, bugs get ironed out and prices fall. The next five to ten years will bring waves of opportunities for businesses to interact with people in immersive and innovative ways. The door to the virtual world is open, all we have to do is walk through.

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