The term "virtual reality" (VR) might invoke memories of the 1982 cult classic "Tron," but VR has evolved to the point where yesterday's fiction is quickly becoming today's reality. Now, this technology is poised to fundamentally change the way business people interact with, test-drive and market their products.
But the potential uses for VR don't stop there; experts agree that in the future, VR will offer even more powerful capabilities to businesses and individuals alike.
It's worth mentioning VR's relation to augmented reality (AR), which uses 3D models to "augment" the real, physical world. VR, on the other hand, creates an environment that's entirely separate from the one you're standing in. Some experts told Business News Daily that they expect these technologies to converge over time. Indeed, that trend is already visible with the creation of products like Microsoft's HoloLens, a headset with immense processing power that enables users to access both VR and AR programs. [See Related Story: Augmented Reality Check: Innovative Ways Businesses Are Embracing AR]
Virtual reality's business applications
From taking stock of inventory to hosting virtual conferences, VR can be applied to a slew of business needs. In general, VR allows users to immerse themselves in an environment that synthesizes a vast amount of data and presents it in a way that's simple to understand and navigate. That data can then be stored and archived so that users can monitor trends over time.
Virtual reality is especially effective for marketing, because it creates an opportunity for businesses to establish a strong emotional connection among target consumers and their product.
"Right now, the most successful business use is marketing experience," Maria Korolov, editor and publisher of business tech publication Hypergrid Business, said. "You take a little bit of your product, put it into a virtual environment and have people use it. It's particularly popular with movies. You get the eye contact, you feel like you're in a different location."
"Brands will use virtual reality to improve customer experience that will ultimately result in the increase of customer loyalty," added Sylvester Kaczmarek, a VR advisor and consultant for startups. "The aim for such VR initiatives should be to give the customers immersive and interactive experience that would increase their association with the product."
VR can also be used in highly sensitive fields to ensure that employees are well-trained and qualified before they undertake important or potentially dangerous tasks. In the health care industry, for example, VR can be used to train and test surgeons before they actually operate on somebody. Some experts said that in the near future, VR might even be capable of simulating resistance as the surgeon operates on the virtual person.
"In health care specifically, employees can be tested on their proficiency in performing procedures in a virtual operating room," Kayla Gallico, co-founder of VR arcade Arcane Reality, said. "Employers can determine if their potential employees have what it takes to work in the industry."
What does the future of VR look like?
Of course, as the price point drops and the technology becomes even more powerful, more businesses will begin to employ VR techniques. Moreover, companies like Microsoft and Sony are starting to develop more sophisticated headsets that support both AR and VR offerings, making both easily accessible on the same platform.
"VR and AR will begin to blur [into] 'mixed reality,'" said Todd Richmond, IEEE member and director of prototype development at the USC Institute for Creative Technologies. "Both are really about trying to combine the digital and the analog/human into some sort of experience."
According to Richmond, VR technology is already starting to make its way into the business world after finding its entryway through the world of gaming.
"Currently, you've got VR starting to make inroads in entertainment," Richmond said. "Architecture and real estate are embracing VR, and manufacturing and design are working with VR and AR. We've been using VR in health care for some time — for example, using it to treat PTSD — and that will be a huge growth industry for both VR and AR. Education is another adoption area."
Contemporary iterations of VR still only scratch the surface of what many people expect for the future.
"One prediction for the next year: Individuals visiting VR worlds will finally become active participants instead of bystanders, as motion-capture devices transfer their actual movements and gestures in real time to virtual reality," Shaun Walker, creative director and co-founder of marketing firm Herofarm, said.
Kirwan McHarry, marketing director for drone manufacturer Mota Group, believes that VR sensors will become smaller and lighter, while computing power will increase.
"This could mean greater image fidelity, more precise motion detection, along with lighter weight and lower cost," McHarry said. "Another development may be the increased adoption of very lightweight goggle frames, such as the carbon-fiber headsets used in aviation."
If McHarry's prediction is accurate — and it seems to be the consensus among experts — VR and AR will quickly develop into a powerful tool, which can be coupled with the genesis of "smart objects" in the internet of things to create a radically different business landscape than the one we're used to today.