The term Virtual Reality is used to describe a 3-D, computer generated environment, which can be explored and interacted with. The user becomes immersed in this virtual world and is able to manipulate or interact with objects or perform a series of actions. A head-mounted display, or HMD, is worn, displaying the 3-dimensional images as part of the experience.
Although Virtual Reality technology is not a recent phenomenon, having been popularised in the late 20th century, more VR software has been created in the previous year than in the last 20 years combined. With a 62% jump in Venture Capital fundraising in 2014 and a substantial rise in the profit levels for the predominant technology companies such as Google, reporting annual revenues of around $66bn in 2014, Virtual Reality technology seems to have finally gotten the financial backing it required to get it off the ground. However, the technology is still in its infancy as engineers are slightly less concerned with revolutionising the world’s major industries and more focused on avoiding latency-related nausea at present.
Large-cap corporations like Facebook, Microsoft, Google and Sony, who have all invested in excess of a combined $3bn in their respective VR products, currently dominate the market. Facebook believes it needs to sell between 50 and 100 million units for the Oculus Rift to be considered a real contender as a gaming platform, and these expectations suggest that the VR product will most likely become one of the firm’s primary products, alongside the social network and Internet access initiatives.
Although 3D technology seemed to add another dimension (quite literally) to the film, TV and gaming industries, the technology did not seem to add much value to society outside of these confines. The scope for Virtual Reality technology, on the other hand, is already overwhelmingly extensive as a result of the readily apparent benefits of such technology to global industry and also mass consumerism.
Microsoft’s recent partnership with NASA, Autodesk, Unity, The Walt Disney Company and the Cleveland Clinic also suggests that the company has considered the widespread uses of such technology, and evidently intend on capitalizing on this from early on.
Similar to the way the Internet allowed us to cut costs and significantly advance entire industries such as music, travel and shopping, VR is able to take us one step further. With the potential to benefit industries ranging from education and retail to entertainment and healthcare, adoption is looking highly likely.
VR’s use in the healthcare industry, for example, would make it far easier and cheaper to train healthcare professionals by simulating accidents or emergencies and potentially removing the need for cadavers, which can cost medical schools anywhere from $1,000 to $6,000 each. Surgeons may also eventually be able to perform remote surgeries by using the virtual reality tech in conjunction with robotic technology.
Additionally, VR technology could be used to train soldiers for combat or otherwise dangerous situations, and VR’s applications to medic training, boot camps and flight simulators could reduce training costs from the annual $9.8bn that they currently stand at in the US alone. The biggest benefit to the military industry, however, could be in the form of treating PTSD. Patients would be exposed to the triggers for their condition in a safe environment, with the hope that they would gradually adjust to them. The cost of disability compensation for veteran PTSD amounted to $4.3bn in 2005, providing an estimate of the savings that VR could facilitate.
Furthermore, it would benefit education by enabling students with particular learning styles to understand and retain knowledge better, as well as productivity; indicated by Microsoft’s partnership with Autodesk. Businesses would experience increased efficiency in recruitment, training and product development, and companies would be able to test prototypes without having to develop several versions of a product. Design problems would also be detected at an earlier stage, proving beneficial as it has been reported by The Systems Sciences Institute at IBM that the cost of fixing an error post-production was 4-5 times as much as one discovered during the design process, and up to 100 times more than an error identified during the maintenance phase.
With Oculus having recently hired directors of film and media studios and companies, such as StarVR, working alongside Lionsgate Films, the cohesion between VR tech companies and the film industry could be a fruitful venture, particularly for Sony, who have already established themselves in this market as made evident by Sony Pictures Entertainment generating $2.6bn in revenue in 2014. Similarly, with a few key releases set to premiere Oculus Rift’s product and Microsoft’s $2.5bn purchase of Minecraft, the $103bn gaming industry is unsurprisingly set to provide a platform to demonstrate the capabilities of this technology.
The $22tn retail industry, however, provides the most expansive platform for Virtual Reality to set pace. Microsoft’s partnership alongside Unity, a software company used by VR developers to create experiences, will be advantageous for the company. It is likely that retailers will work alongside firms to develop virtual storefronts, where customers can simulate the shopping experience whilst in the comfort of their own home, or even benefit from prices overlaid on clothing items whilst shopping on the high street. However, it is unlikely that shoppers will completely avoid physically going shopping, so the role of VR in the retail industry is more likely to be as a planning tool rather than a purchasing tool.
While the promises offered by this technology alone seem far-fetched, it is also worth noting that even once these promises are delivered, the lack of physical interaction will heavily affect the selling point. Users will have to use a controller to navigate their virtual worlds, and the constant reminder of limited physical interaction could dull the ‘immersive’ experience. However, this has paved the way for companies like Gloveone and Hands Omni who are developing data-gloves for use alongside Virtual Reality systems. This could provide opportunities for unparalleled synergies between them and companies like Facebook, who have the capital to facilitate an acquisition and the resources to develop this technology alongside its VR efforts. The coming decade and explosive growth in VR tech could encourage exponential growth in the value of these companies as consumer demand for VR and accompanying products rises.
It is evident that Virtual Reality is going to revolutionize a number of industries and will eventually give way to mainstream adoption of other similar technologies as discussed. Could it also be the phenomenon to propel companies like Facebook and Google toward trillion dollar valuations?
While it generates a great deal of excitement within the technology industry, it also raises concern over the lure of an alternate reality. Although many users will maintain a grounded understanding of the purposes of VR tech, it could very well lead to similar addictions to those famously experienced by many ’Second Life’ gamers, ultimately leading us to the question; what happens when virtual reality becomes more real than reality ever was?