If smartphones were the darling that revolutionized the last decade, virtual reality (VR) could probably be the next great disruptor – not only for the tech-savvy but also for businesses and consumers. Experts predict that the virtual reality industry is likely to hit “hypergrowth” by 2022, with Gartner estimating that VR headset sales alone will be worth at least $21 billion annually for the next four years.
Made popular by tech giants’ investment in virtual reality such as the Google Glass and Facebook’s $2 billion acquisition of Oculus, today’s virtual reality industry is pretty much still in its early stages. But imagine what’s about to come. The way we function, work and live can all shift radically, similar to how smartphones have brought the Internet, right to our fingertips.
While virtual reality is still a work-in-progress, the next five to ten years will see VR combining with AI (artificial intelligence) and firms implementing VR coders into existing software. Testers will test simulated environments of high and low bandwidth and enterprises will communicate with their IT vendors in a simulated VR room.
Indeed, VR or AR (augmented reality) will bring about tremendous opportunities, whether for the end-consumers or businesses. Companies will need to rethink their strategy and apply VR/AR soon in order to attain the true value of this new reality.
Virtual reality is not new to the market – it just hasn’t been very good. In the mid-1990s, for instance, Nintendo introduced the Virtual Boy, a $180 machine that boasted stereoscopic 3D and a binocular-like eyepiece but had poor graphics and none of the head- or hand-tracking that makes virtual reality compelling.
While Virtual Boy was a commercial dud, its failure did not ultimately diminish the technology’s progress. Two decades later, high-resolution screens, fast refresh rates, sophisticated trackability, and low latency have made VR environments in some cases almost indistinguishable from real ones. Now, for a few hundred dollars, it’s possible to wear a pair of goggles made by HTC or Oculus, pair them with a computer, and experience a fully immersive digital scene that lets you interact with people and things as if they were real and right in front of you.
Closer to reality
Consider just a few examples of how virtual reality will change the way companies operate and transact.
- For conferences of the future, being physically present won’t be necessary. A headset is all that is needed to “attend” and watch the speaker on the conference hall stage.
- E-commerce retailers will also be able to use virtual environments to show shoppers how clothes look or fit, without the customer being anywhere near their stores. Alibaba also finally threw its hat into the virtual reality ring following its move to start a VR research lab to integrate virtual reality into the shopping experience.
- Designers and architects can depict their projects in virtual reality to examine an object or building from all angles and understand what it will look like before it is even built. In the US, Sotheby’s International Realty, for instance, is already using VR to host open houses for luxury homes. Closer to home in December 2015, Singapore’s Building and Construction Authority (BCA) launched a new training facility equipped with VR technology to allow designers and contractors simulate an entire construction project in 3D instead of traditional paper and screen models. According to BCA, virtual reality will save time, reduce costs, and increase productivity by 20%.
- Classroom learning will no longer be confined to only textbooks and video clips as schools adopt an immersive and experiential 3D learning environment. For example, Beacon Primary School and Hwa Chong Institution are teaching with virtual reality. Students use a variety of virtual learning tools and spaces to go on virtual field trips or virtual debates, public speeches and broadcasts.
- Human resource teams won’t even need to show up in the office. They will instead be able to interview job candidates in virtual meeting rooms, being able to converse with candidates, and read body language and facial expressions without leaving the comfort of their armchairs. And the applications for training are potentially even more profound. Aerospace and defence giant Lockheed Martin is already using VR to train soldiers. NASA is using it to teach technicians how to fix satellites.
While the embryonic state of virtual reality today means it is still mostly the domain of the tech-savvy and avant-garde businesses, change is coming fast. The Internet of Things (IoT) is becoming more widespread, creating a burgeoning global network of connected devices and sensors that is making everyday objects “smart”. Processors are getting ever faster and more powerful at increasingly affordable prices. Optical tools are improving, too, and headset technology is primed for a revolution. All these developments could boost the adoption of VR in a matter of years.
Every business will need to be prepared. Today, a powerful computer and a clunky pair of goggles are needed to enter a new virtual dimension. In ten years, a smartphone and a sleek pair of glasses might just be enough.
And at that point? Entering a virtual world will be easier than dressing for work.
Written by Manoj Chugh, president of Enterprise Business at Tech Mahindra