While the 1992 film Toys, starring the late, great Robin Williams, did not meet with universal acclaim (it registered a paltry 26% at the review site Rotten Tomatoes, despite receiving two Oscar nominations for its artistic merit), it contained at least one notable scene. This involved Williams, as toy designer Leslie Zevo, sitting on a sofa with his sister Alsatia (played by Joan Cusack) and wearing what looked like eye masks. As the pair rocked, screamed and waved their hands in the air it became clear that they were watching a roller coaster simulation.
Spot the date: over a quarter of a century has now passed since virtual reality (VR) headsets first entered the popular consciousness. A number of challenges have had to be overcome — not least insufficient screen resolution and movement tracking, which have been considered as causes of queasiness when headsets are worn.
But also, cost. I can remember, back then, considering the scenario of a young rebel on a city metro train, sporting cool-looking glasses that beamed images onto his retinas. Even if this were yet possible, it would be cost-prohibitive. But it is coming.
A mere three years have passed since Palmer Luckey first set himself the task of producing a low-cost VR headset. Following a luck(e)y break when he met John Carmack, creator of the seminal first-person shooter Doom, Palmer followed the footsteps of so many entrepreneurs when he left college to follow his dreams.
The Kickstarter campaign for the Oculus Rift heads-up display raised nearly $2.5m and while the device is yet to be released, its technology is already built into Samsung Gear devices. As it arrives however, the Rift is already offering more potential than just viewing images and videos.
To understand why VR in general, and the Rift in particular, are set to be such a game changer, we need to consider not just the headset but how it fits with a range of other technologies. Augmented reality for example, which links visuals with context-based data. Motion tracking from the likes of Leap or Kinect.
It’s not how any one technology delivers that matters; rather, it is how they can be used in combination. You can think of all the pieces as components of a new range of solutions, which have applicability in retail, in healthcare, in navigation, in geology and (as per Mr Williams) in film, media and all forms of entertainment.
Audi’s “world’s first fully digital car showroom,” based in London, is one example of how VR can benefit the retail experience. Audi integrated a Samsung Gear VR headset, immersing customers in a tour of the car’s features – you can even take a test drive. While this set-up claims to be the first of its kind, it is unlikely to be the last. As such solutions become prevalent, and as an inevitable consequence of the laws of supply and demand, the components will also become cheaper even as they diversify in form and function.
What other applications might we see? We might see a resurgence in virtual worlds such as Second Life; more likely however is that VR will become part of our daily lives. As such it is important for any organisation to consider the implications, which can come from a number of directions. It may be that VR has applicability within the business — in R&D for example, or in data visualization. Equally, it has potential to change behaviors, for example in how people work and relate to their colleagues.
The bottom line is: today, for many, VR still looks like a fun gadget, and indeed it is outside of certain domains. So have some of that fun — for a few hundred dollars, invest in some headsets and try them out. That way, when VR becomes more than fun, you will have a more solid perspective into how to integrate VR into your business strategies.