It’s rare that a consumer technology is a giant leap forward rather than the next iterative step. Virtual reality represents just that kind of leap. With the spring launch of the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, as well as the imminent release of Sony’s PlayStation VR, high-end virtual reality has arrived. Add to that lower-end headsets like Samsung’s Gear VR, Google’s Cardboard, and many other players and it’s clear that 2016 is the year the technology goes mainstream. While none of the hardware makers are promising to sell millions of units this year, estimates peg the VR market—hardware and content—at $30 billion by 2020. It’s not just gaming and entertainment that are poised for transformation. Here are some of the most interesting—and potentially lucrative—ways VR is being deployed.
Though most VR content is prerecorded, live sports and entertainment broadcasts are on the way. NextVR has already tried it with the Golden State Warriors’ NBA opener last fall and the Daytona 500. Universal and iHeartRadio are partnering to live-stream a handful of concerts this year.
With its proprietary cameras and app, Silicon Valley–based Matterport has helped real estate companies such as Redfin and Beverly Hills’ Altman Brothers create interactive 3-D models for thousands of listings, offering buyers an easy way to experience open houses. Hotels are also using Matterport’s technology for virtual room tours.
New Zealand–based 8i is the pioneer of volumetric VR, which allows viewers to move freely throughout a scene, making it possible to see people—and what they’re wearing—from any direction. The company’s not discussing its partners yet but has been in talks with a number of major fashion players.
British startup Medical Realities created its Virtual Surgeon training tool to let novice doctors experience operations through the eyes of a surgeon. VR HealthNet is developing virtual-reality modules for nurses and other medical professionals aimed at helping them internalize certain procedures without any risk to patients.
Designing simulations and training for the armed forces is a big business—as much as $9.3 billion globally, according to the military contractor CAE. Britain’s Plextek is developing VR training programs for battlefield medics, while Korea’s DoDAAM has created a paratrooper trainer for the Rift.