Virtual Future – how will virtual reality shape our future world?
Part 2: VR beyond gaming
More than just a game
In our last blog we began our discussion of VR by looking at what the future may hold in store for this technology in the world of computer games. However, whilst gaming still represents the most widely used application for VR and AR at present, this technology has many other applications.
In this article, we would like to take a closer look the potential for these.
One of the huge changes covid has forced on our professional lives is the need for virtual working. The business world has discovered that it is perfectly possible for most office staff to work effectively from home for long periods of time. Indeed, tools like Zoom and Microsoft Teams have helped to make home working become the new normal.
But a remote working world, for all its video calls, can be an isolating experience. Yes, we will be returning to the office sometime this year. But let’s not kid ourselves it will be the same. Many people will now be working from home as the norm and hot desking in the office when they need to. The days of the daily commute, five days a week, every week, are gone.
This remote working scenario is ripe for transformation into a virtual world. Using VR and AR technology can help to humanise the experience, it can make it more real, more interactive and allow work colleagues to participate in a wider range of interactive tasks.
This technology is already here. One such solution is Spatial; an AR version of Zoom, enabling work colleagues to interact in an AR office space. You can interact in a more 3D environment rather than just with 2-dimensional video but the technology also offers other tools such as enabling you to share ideas by scribbling on a virtual white board, share content and images in 3D and so on. No doubt, as time goes by, technology such as this will continue to add features and tools that make the experience even more interactive.
In lockdown we have all, to some extent or other, been forced to get used to the idea of remote socialising. Often armed with a glass of wine and a Zoom call. Arguably many Gen Zs have been socialising remotely far more than they do in person for most of their lives. The only thing that’s changed over the past year is that the rest of us have joined them.
Now, I’m not suggesting people are going to abandon the pubs and restaurants any time soon. In fact, once these places can re-open, I’m sure they can expect a bit of a boom. Imagine the novelty value of going to the pub with your friends again?
But that said, I suspect that socialising remotely will remain a much more important part of our lives post-covid than it was before. For one thing it is a great way to meet up with friends and family who live far away. No need to travel, just hop on a Zoom call.
Again, as with working, remote socialising tends to lead naturally to virtual socialising. The ability to interact in 3D in a virtual environment is unlikely to catch on if it is expensive but – as soon as the price is right – this will eventually become a normal way of communicating. As with virtual reality workspaces, it is more a question of when than if.
Indeed, tools already exist for virtual socialising such as Altspace VR, VR Chat and Rec Room.
Interior Design and Architecture
An obvious application for VR and AR is interior design. Using this technology a designer can show their clients how they might transform an interior space. Such a visualisation can make a design look far more real and can be used to show clients what a range of different alternatives might look like.
Such technology should ultimately make it easy for people to visualise a range of different options and to alter and adjust designs to see how different scenarios might play out. And what goes for interior design applies equally well to architecture. Now it is possible to visit an empty plot of land or a building site and use AR to see exactly what a new building might look like. You can even walk around it to see just what it looks like in its environment from every angle.
Many clients find it hard to visualise what an end design might look like. VR can show them in a way that is clear, avoids misunderstanding and negates the need for lengthy explanations.
Having a clear virtual view of what the end product will look like before you even need to build, buy or change anything, clearly has the potential to avoid costly mistakes. Most importantly, it makes it much less likely that designers and builders will hear the dreaded words “Now I see it, I’m not sure I like it like that.”
Engineering and Industrial Design
Technical design work can often involve large teams and often those teams may be working together but are based in different parts of the world.
Here VR/AR has the same potential as in other fields to link remote working colleagues together and enable them to visualise concepts and designs in 3-dimensions.
People can all see how things might fit together and how the finished article might look. This can be particularly important if the physical styling and appearance of the end product is key. It is much better to spot potential problems in a virtual world and correct them, rather than having to wait until an expensive prototype has been created.
Like architecture, the key benefits will come from remote teamworking and the ability to visualise the end product fully before you need to start spending serious money on making it real.
As with other fields, the barriers will be all around cost and, given the data hungry nature of engineering design work, the ability of the technology to cope well with that. The ROI will become simpler and easier to justify, as the technology improves and costs come down.
Some companies have already been using this technology for a while now. Businesses like Jaguar Land Rover and Arup have been deploying VR in design for over a decade. In time smaller businesses will inevitably follow.
Another field where we might expect to see VR make increasing inroads is healthcare. Here the technology can be used for training in various surgical procedures. It can also be used to help surgeons plan for particularly complex operations.
Students can now study human anatomy extensively with VR, potentially continuing their studies from home if need be.
VR can assist with robotic surgery enhancing the degree of control a remote surgeon has over their instruments during a procedure and providing them with a much clearer visualisation of what is happening than would be possible just by looking at a video screen.
VR’s inherent ability to visualise and simulate makes it ideal for any training application where people need to interact with complex technology or a difficult environment. It can safely create realistic simulations that help prepare people for working in demanding and potentially dangerous work environments. It also enables students and tutors who may be scattered in remote locations to come together and interact as a group.
As the technology improves and the costs come down, it is inevitable that we will see VR become increasingly used as a go-to technology for many training applications.
Clearly the primary application for VR in entertainment is gaming. However, this is not the only one. VR can be used to enhance rides in theme parks or perhaps even to create an entire VR experience as a theme in itself.
VR can create spectacular interactive 3-dimensional landscapes and environments. The potential to use this technology to create something of great artistic beauty can deliver entertainment in the form of a sense of wonder.
Could we perhaps be engaging with VR films or other entertainment experiences in the future? I am sure we will, in time.
Given the wide range of different potential applications we could be looking at a world dominated by VR technology at some point in the future.
The fact that covid has rapidly accelerated the extent to which the world works and interacts remotely can only serve as an accelerator for the adoption of new VR applications. The only question is how fast will this happen?
Unfortunately, VR has suffered considerably from over-hype in the past. I am sure we can all remember the heady prophecies of 800% growth over four years and such like. In a way, predictions such as that have done more harm than good for the industry and run the risk of creating a sense of the “boy who cried wolf”.
We may not see a sudden, spectacular, VR revolution but I believe we will see a steady evolution and a sustained growth. One day we will wake up and all of a sudden it will seem as though VR is everywhere.
For the VR industry it is important to remember that VR itself is only a technology. For a technology to succeed it must have applications. So the real challenge, beyond improving the technology, is to identify and develop a meaningful range of products for which there is real demand. And here it helps to start by taking some advice from Steve Jobs:
“You’ve got to start with the customer experience and work back toward the technology, not the other way around.”
In this context that means looking for potential situations that would benefit from the visual power of VR – i.e. where visualisation can add real value. Its other key benefit is its ability to operate virtually, bring people in different locations together in a single experience. Those two things in combination represent the key to developing killer applications.
Identifying and refining how these applications work, overcoming customer objections and reservations and then successfully communicating the benefits of the technology all require a good understanding of the potential market. This would be where market research can help of course.
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Sources & Links:
British Interior Design Institute