This past June's Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) was dominated by virtual reality. Which makes sense, as VR and gaming make natural bedfellows, and gamers tend to be very early adopters. But with consumer VR gear about to come to market—including phone-maker HTC's Vive headset, Facebook-owned Oculus releasing the Rift early next year, Sony's Project Morpheus for the PlayStation 4, and products from a variety of smaller companies—it's time the rest of the world got comfortable in virtual spaces.
"As people look at this industry, there is this natural gravitation toward gaming, where we know there is pent-up demand, interest, anticipation for VR," says Jeff Gattis, executive director for marketing in HTC's emerging devices division. "But this is a transformative technology, really changing the way people interact with computers. To pay off that promise, you have to show scenarios beyond gaming."
Although virtual reality really blew up in the '90s (go and watch Lawnmower Man and Disclosure as high-profile spotlights on the emerging tech), it eventually was seen more as a gimmick than anything else. It lent to some great arcade games, but the public forgot about VR before it even came to households.
But it never died. In the 20 years since VR's initial blip of pop culture popularity, it has been honed and refined, and, thanks to affordable tech on the horizon, could eventually find itself as ubiquitous as the smartphone or HDTV.
No matter how good EA Sports's NBA or MLB games may get, there'll always pale in comparison to the real thing. "I think of sitting on the floor at the Lakers game or being at the Yankees game—maybe watching it from the third-base coach's box, maybe switching my view to behind the plate, maybe I'm up in the stands. You start to think about the possibilities of that. We are not that far away from being there," says Gattis.
Virtual sports is just one use. Imagine watching entire concerts from the stage. Imagine every major Hollywood movie or TV show having an accompanying VR experience that puts you there on a set, or even in the middle of the big climactic action scene. At this year's San Diego Comic Con, director Guillermo del Toro's upcoming film Crimson Peak and the new Syfy series The Expanse held VR demos, and Conan O'Brien did an entire week of shows filmed in 360 degrees. In just a few years' time, a VR experience will become a standard part of Hollywood marketing.
The Morpheus research team is already working with Sony Pictures to create movie tie-in experiences. "There is a movie coming out called The Walk about the guy that walked across the World Trade Center on a high wire. So we worked with them and made a mock-up of what it would feel like to stand at the edge of the World Trade Center and step out onto that wire," says Richard Marks, the head of the Morpheus research team. "It gives you that feeling of what it's like in that moment where you are standing there and you have to step out. Of course, the vertigo is overwhelming."
VR's use as a social tool for communication could have the biggest impact. Imagine having a family reunion even if everyone is oceans away. Or have a business meeting over such long distances, but feel like you are all in the same room. That is the promise of VR communications. Once headsets go through several iterations, maybe in three to five years, they will have eye tracking and facial tracking, so that virtual representations of people will actually have that person's facial movement and allow proper eye contact.
And it doesn't stop at simple meetings. You could partake in a virtual activity with others. Maybe you will go to a virtual amusement park with your cousins. Attend a virtual convention without having your company shell out for travel expenses. These uses are likely why Facebook paid $2 billion to acquire Oculus.
In the Facebook post from March 2014 in which Mark Zuckerberg announced the purchase of Oculus, he stated, "[VR] is really a new communication platform. 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."
Beyond virtual meetings, companies are already employing VR as a training tool. The devices help create, say, a virtual factory where people do their job virtually before they do it in real life.
"Oil platforms can't afford any downtime to train employees. And the risk of failure is very high; the threat of losing lives is very high," says Peter Schlueer, president of WorldViz. "In these cases, virtual reality can give trainees a full sense of scale and a map of the environment—where they have to go, what they have to do. They can do it on a one-for-one scale, and when they go into the real scenario, they are fully oriented because they have a real memory ingrained in their brain."
WorldViz has been helping companies create such VR experiences since 2002, at prices starting at $20,000. With the advent of consumer VR, the cost of such training solutions will decrease dramatically. Which means more widespread use in businesses. And then it can enter people's homes. Imagine learning in VR how to fix your car or how to cook the perfect omelet. Virtual practice of such things will ensure real-world activities will have fewer mistakes.
Businesses have also been using virtual environments for design purposes. They redesign cars virtually, putting them through several iterations before moving to a physical mockup. Doing those first passes virtually means fewer physical prototypes, saving both time and money. VR is also used on small designs such as engine parts, or big designs, such as the the layout of a business itself.
"One key example would be in hospital design," says Schlueer. "We set up a full virtual reality system in an empty room; bring in the surgeons, bring in the nurses, and they all wear headsets. They can walk around in that virtual surgery room and criticize the design. Say, 'I don't have line of sight here; we need more space here; this door can't open this way.' They can manipulate the surgery rooms live. That's something revolutionizing the way these projects are being done."
Architectural uses of VR have so many benefits: Changes that could come post-construction are realized beforehand, saving, again, time and money. It allows people to make the most of the space they are working in or living in. Once VR comes to the public, they can go house-hunting virtually before they meet a real estate agent for an actual tour. People could also remodel their homes virtually, try different colors before they paint the walls, or walk around their new garden before anything is planted.
"The words virtual reality throw people off. Virtual reality gets them thinking 'gaming.' At the end of the day, the way we think about it is that this is not virtual, this is the real thing; the only difference is that you are not there," says Abi Mandelbaum, CEO of YouVisit. "It's reverse teleportation. Instead of sending you somewhere else, we are bringing that location to you."
The virtual travel company YouVisit started in 2010 with college campuses, and now supports a wide variety of businesses. You can check out a Carnival Cruise, restaurants like Tavern on the Green, or even wedding venues without stepping foot out of your house. YouVisit provides 360-degree photos of such places via websites, then mobile apps, and now on VR.
Another company, marketing agency Relevent, worked with Marriott to create a VR experience that goes beyond just a headset, where you step into a booth called the Teleporter. Not only do you experience a video of a Hawaiian beach in 360 degrees and in 3-D, but you are blasted with warm air, sprayed with mist, and surrounded by the smell of the sea.
"Sensory inputs are telling your brain that things are happening. When we can do a little bit of stimulation to the body, it makes it feel that much deeper," says Ian Cleary, Relevent's VP of innovation. "We’re working with Marriott on what’s next for VR in the travel space. You can imagine the uses: You might want to plan your next trip, or see around town, what places of interest or restaurants you might want to visit."
But what if you could visit a location for more than just fun? Imagine walking around a virtual Rome and actually stepping into a bustling Colosseum in its heyday. Imagine then going underwater to learn about oceanography, or ducking for cover in the middle of a World War II siege, or launching into space to better grasp astrophysics.
Sony's Richard Marks says, "We worked with JPL and NASA to see how we could do something that goes beyond gaming. We took data that NASA had on the Mars surface and took a model of the Mars Rover and created an experience of what it would be like to stand on Mars."
Beyond virtual "trips," VR could change online learning. Classes could be held in virtual classrooms: You could see your teacher, see your fellow students, collaborate on projects together in a 3-D space. And taking it one step further, universities like MIT or NYU could have virtual telepresence, where you attend live classes via 360-degree and 3-D video streaming to your headset. You could have thousands attending lectures via a single camera.
One of the big uses of VR for the last two decades has been in health care. Doctors have been performing virtual surgeries, controlling robot arms from thousands of miles away. And VR has become a staple for therapy, helping people get over phobias or other psychological issues.
"You can expose traumatized soldiers to the actual environment they are traumatized by and guide them through letting go of their trauma and fear. Now that we see the costs of these systems going down, we will see a surge of applications for consumers. Whatever you are afraid of—dating or public speaking, or fear of heights or fear of spiders—those are all going to be applications that psychologists can use to augment the usual types of therapy," says Schlueer.
Schlueer notes that such therapy can relieve more than trauma or fears. The company has been working with Stanford's Virtual Human Interaction Lab in its explorations of the psychological effects of VR. "Immersing yourself in a virtual scene creates this powerful memory and can really change your behavior," says Schlueer. "Stanford University is proving how virtual reality changes your behavior. We can very easily make an avatar of you and age it. Once you have met yourself at the age of 70 or 75, your inclination and commitment to putting money into a retirement savings account doubles statistically compared to the control group."
And what if everyone could get virtual health care? Imaging speaking to the family doctor eye-to-eye in VR. He could then immediately refer you to an expert, who can join the two of you in a virtual doctor's office. Many tests would still have to be done in person, but the long wait times and crowding found in hospitals would decrease as some visits move to VR.
How about combining the ease and access of online shopping with the experience of going to a mall? And shopping? A virtual store has limitless racks with an infinite number of styles and choices. Shoppers can find out everything they want about the products they are interested in. Or go to an automobile showroom virtually and examine a virtual car. On the fly, adjust the options available, the interior choices, the paint job. Then take your customized car for a virtual test drive.
"Home improvement companies want to sell you tools. If they just had a Gear VR sitting there: You put it on, select the tool, and some super-handy guy is telling you everything about that tool. You pick up a motion controller and you are cutting or drilling. You can have the designer explain to you why this is the right tool. You can go as deep as you want. Then you go home, where you can go through the experience again," says Amir Rubin, CEO of Sixense.
Sixense is a maker of VR software and motion control hardware. The company worked with advertising agency SapientNitro to create vRetail. In one demo of the software, you stand in a virtual store. You can grab a pair of shoes off a shelf and look at them up close, then put them on a virtual mannequin. You can examine a pop-up window with details about the product and watch a live-action video of the shoes. This software shows that v-commerce may be the next great retail space since the e-commerce boom that came with the Internet.
With such a huge variety of possibilities, it seems to be more of a matter of when and not if virtual reality will become mainstream. It may take several iterations and some years for costs to go down, but VR will spread to more and more homes and provide more and more experiences beyond games. But it all hinges on VR hardware creators and game developers providing more than games.
Marks says, "We would ask someone to try Morpheus and they say they are not really into games. But if you can convince them to try it, they will enjoy a VR experience because of how compelling it is. Getting my father-in-law to use it was very easy. I said, 'Would you like to see what it would like to be on Mars?' That's very easy. So it is important to have more inclusive content like that."
Adds HTC's Gattis, "For VR to be a really transformative technology, it's going to have to be something more than just another device to play games on. It's going to have to change the way we do things in our lives."
Slideshow Credits: 01 / Photo: Courtesy of YouVisit; 02 / Photo: Courtesy of YouVisit; 03 / Photo: Courtesy of YouVisit; 04 / Photo: Courtesy of YouVisit; 05 / Photo: Courtesy of YouVisit; 06 / Photo: Courtesy of YouVisit; 07 / Photo: Courtesy of Sixense; 08 / Photo: Courtesy of Sixense; 09 / Photo: Courtesy of Sixense; 10 / Photo: Courtesy of Sixense; 11 / Photo: Courtesy of Sixense;