When Mark Zuckerberg announced Facebook’s acquisition of Oculus Rift back in 2014, he described some potential future uses for the tool:
“After games, we're going to make Oculus a platform for many other experiences. Imagine enjoying a court side seat at a game, studying in a classroom of students and teachers all over the world or consulting with a doctor face-to-face — just by putting on goggles in your home.
… By feeling truly present, you can share unbounded spaces and experiences with the people in your life. Imagine sharing not just moments with your friends online, but entire experiences and adventures.”
Besides the Oculus brand, there’s a whole range of VR headsets currently on — or soon to reach — the mass market. From Microsoft’s high end Hololens to a whole range of cheap and cheerful Google Cardboard headsets for users to slot their smartphones in and experience a virtual world for under $20.
VR is nothing new. It has existed in some form since the 1950s, and a bubble of hype around the potential of the tech boomed then busted in the 1990s.
Today’s proponents say this time it's different.
Technology improvements made the experience less shaky, more realistic and less likely to induce the nausea often associated with exploring computer-graphic worlds. Anyone who’s tried modern VR agree it is an absorbing and engaging experience yet … so what? Besides gaming and a couple of other relatively niche activities, can VR actually offer anything particularly useful ‘real world’ uses for the tech, or will it make like 3D TV — kind of impressive, but unnecessary?
Virtual Reality in the Real World
This criticism is a little small minded.
There are a lot of ways VR could find its way into the workplace. Some of these are in fact already in use, others are in the pipeline and certain workers can expect these to become part of their daily experience in the future.
Flight simulators have been around for decades now, and are becoming ever more sophisticated as a way of putting rooky pilots through their paces. However, improved VR is potentially a great way of simulating all sorts of workplace training experiences — from public speaking to helping engineers "fix" broken machinery to carrying out surgery.
One of the most exciting ways VR could be used is in R&D — from architecture, to urban design to automobiles and anything else. Virtual reality will allow designers to iterate and try out hundreds of variations on a product, discover weaknesses and faults early on and save money.
Virtual reality promises the possibility that colleagues will no longer have to spend 12 hours on a plane when working together on projects. VR will make it really feel like you are working together, allowing you to join and participate in meetings in a far more lifelike way than via VoIP.
Stores will be able to optimize floor and shelf design of supermarkets and other kinds of retail environments. By experimenting with different ways of placing products around the store, floor planners will get a much better idea of how to design and lay out their stores. Conferences, sport events and plenty of other customer-facing experiences could also benefit from this approach.
Therapy and Treatment
VR offers great potential for helping people overcome traumatic experiences and phobias by immersing them in a "safe" environment which they can control with help from a professional, before facing their fears.
Space is expensive. So imagine a virtual showroom, hundreds of miles long, where you could examine any products you want in different colors, shapes and sizes. VR could potentially help sales people in the design of everything from your new bathroom to choosing the ideal paint for your bedroom walls or even the holiday of a lifetime.
Beyond the VR Hype
VR holds the potential of impacting how we will work in future. Any claims that it will "change everything" still need to be taken with a large pinch of salt.
A number of industries and specific scenarios could benefit from the introduction of VR, but the majority of workers will unlikely ever need or feel the effects of VR in any way. Speculation about VR is fun, but let's look beyond the hype and start imagining where it will really be useful.