Along with holograms and food replicators, virtual reality was an element of science fiction that nobody ever thought would actually be possible, let alone commercially available. Then VR headsets exploded onto the market in 2016. In that year the Samsung Gear VR sold 5 million units, the Rift sold 3.6, and the HTC Vive sold 2.1. By contrast, the first Playstation sold 2.8 million units when it was first released in 1995. The VR marketplace was estimated to be worth 2.5 billion USD in 2016, and it is predicted to grow to 21.5 billion USD by 2020. Another science fiction dream is becoming reality.
While the tech industry has been developing new models quickly since their release, the widespread use of VR is still held back by some limitations: wires, weight, complicated setups, etc.
The ‘Windows Mixed Reality’ headsets (actually just virtual reality by another name) are quick to set up. Microsoft claims they can be plugged via USB into a laptop, there is a 10 minute installation, and then they’re ready to go. This quick and casual approach will definitely appeal to generations raised on smartphone games that you can pick up and put down on a whim. They are also lighter, and use a specialized fabric to reduce the build-up of sweat beneath the visor. However it still relies on wires, and blindly flailing at tangles from within the headset can be both frustrating and dangerous.
The latest HTC Vive Pro is lighter and more comfortable to wear. While it still relies on graphic processors of other machines that need to be plugged in, they’re due to release a wireless adaptor that will free the wearer/user from wires.
However the HTC headset still relies on external sensors to monitor the controllers and movement. The WMR headsets, and the upcoming Oculus headsets, use something called ‘inside out tracking’ that means the headsets themselves track the controllers. This means you don’t need to define the space with sensors on tripods (that also need wires to power them).
The Oculus might be making the biggest strides into the future: a fully standalone, wireless VR headset at an affordable price and higher resolution than the WMR models. They have also addressed the build-up of sweat beneath the visor.
VR headsets do not immediately lend themselves to office use but AR screens like the Hololens are more compatible with team dynamics.
One of the most immediate applications of workplace VR headsets is for 3D designers. Instead of clumsy navigation via mouse in a modelling application, they can put on a VR headset, fire up one of the apps, and start experimenting with a variety of tools immediately at their fingertips. With a big enough room they can circle their creation, viewing it from every angle exactly like a sculptor.
VRE teambuilding events offer the opportunity to transfer the shapes, structures and objects created in virtual reality into actual reality. Using the magic of a 3D printer, we’re exploring the future of manufacturing moulds and prototypes.
There are already hundreds of games and apps currently available since VR headsets became commercially viable two years ago. As the larger game development companies start to use Unity to design VR applications, the predictions about the worth of the VR industry will definitely come true. Previously multiplayer modes have produced a frustrating latency but recently they have become more common, which means a VR headset is no longer a lonely experience. Imagine exploring a VR Minecraft server with your friends, or Call of Duty, or a fully immersive Zelda adventure, or maybe one day a 3D VR MMORPG Pokemon game.
As virtual worlds become more prevalent, they have an obvious place in marketing, events and expos. Rather than a simple booth, visitors might put on a VR helmet and explore a luxury yacht or the Sagrada Familia. It is having a similar effect on training events, even enabling events which people can attend remotely via VR headset hire. Dozens of people can be in the same room, building models and collaborating on art, despite being in different cities.
Training on VR is also an option for children, allowing schools to tour children around any 360 degree photo in a city, ancient Egyptian tombs, the red rocks of Mars and even the whole solar system. Cleanopolis is great for teaching them about climate change, and in Quiver their 2D drawings can come to life.
One application for virtual reality that has been quietly gaining traction is in therapy. A variety of situations can be explored easily that a therapist would otherwise struggle to recreate, or would be completely impossible. People with body dysmorphia and eating disorders can look down at themselves and see the implications of reaching their desired weight. People with PTSD such as veterans can explore traumatic environments from a place of safety. Some phobias can also be treated – immersion therapy for arachnophobia would previously have required therapists to find a collection of spiders, public speaking phobias would require a crowd to actually gather, claustrophobia would mean a real-life small space, and so on.
As Facebook continues to develop new Oculus models, everyone is awaiting a VR social media experience – not a 2D scrolling list of text, but perhaps a more natural gallery experience decorated with access to personally customized venues. Considering the inevitability of immersive social media, within ten years there will be a suite of VR headsets in every home.