Virtual reality is near the top of the heap when it comes to current buzz in the tech sector. With long-anticipated consumer products making their debut in 2016 and extensive media coverage becoming a daily staple, the technology that promises to take you anywhere already seems to be everywhere.
In many ways, the hype is merited. What was once the stuff of science fiction is now hitting store shelves, and at price points that put VR within reach for many everyday buyers. On the other hand, like any nascent technology, virtual reality is far from perfect. Early adopters are likely to be elated and disappointed in equal measure as they wait for products, media, and markets to catch up.
If you’re somewhere between fan-boy fervor and Scrooge-like skepticism, you’re not alone. I experienced the excitement and energy firsthand while attending Mobile World Congress 2016 (It was impossible not to.), but I'm more interested in what VR means for real-world business applications. Granting that virtual reality is breakthrough technology and may someday be commonplace, what should those not on the cutting-edge know or do NOW to be ready for the coming wave, and avoid getting swept aside?
Knowing some of the key players in virtual reality technology is a good place to start. Ultimately, the gear itself is far less important than having a sound strategy for using it (or not), but coverage of consumer VR products is widespread, and it often includes feature and application details that can serve as a useful primer on the technology itself.
A quick web search can turn up any number of articles comparing specs or offering firsthand reviews. The Verge has published a fairly detailed breakdown, for instance, but new articles are coming out even more rapidly than new VR headsets and content announcements, so it always pays to take a fresh look.
For the moment, here are the big names with products in (or nearing) market:
Oculus Rift: The granddaddy of them all (if you don’t count Nintendo’s Virtual Boy). This is the flagship product of Oculus VR, the legendary company that raised millions on Kickstarter and sold for billions to Facebook. It’s costly ($599), powerful (but requires a high-end computer), and features handheld controllers for a more interactive experience.
Samsung Gear VR: This headset was omnipresent during Mobile World Congress, even beyond the exhibit halls—Samsung deployed large-scale demo stations offering VR roller coaster rides at several sites around Barcelona. It also featured prominently in the company’s keynote, which famously included a presentation by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who strolled unnoticed through an auditorium full of headset-wearing attendees. So, A+ for promotion, but how about the tech? The Gear VR requires a high-end Samsung phone, is powered by Oculus VR (hence the Zuckerberg appearance), and delivers a pretty solid entry-level experience, especially given its $99 price tag.
Google Cardboard: Similar to the Gear VR, Google Cardboard provides a headset that uses carefully placed lenses to let users view VR content on an inserted smartphone. The upside of Cardboard is that it’s the cheapest option by far (often available as a giveaway, and only $15 direct from Google), allowing nearly anyone to get a glimpse of what all the fuss is about. The downside is, as expected, the quality gulf vs. tailored experiences using higher-end hardware.
HTC Vive: Another product of partnership, the Vive is the joint creation of handset maker HTC and Valve, creator of the Steam online gaming platform. This bodes well for gamers, but at $799, the Vive is one of the more expensive headsets. To be fair it also includes unique features like laser tracking and front-facing cameras that automatically offer a view ahead when obstructions loom, allowing users to move confidently around a room.
Sony PlayStation VR: Also of interest to the gaming crowd, Sony’s virtual reality headset won’t be available until October, but at $399, it will retail for half the cost of the Vive. As with other high-end headsets, users will be tethered, but to a PS4 rather than a PC. Given this requirement (and the product name), the PlayStation VR is first and foremost a gaming device, and Sony announced at the recent E3 conference that 50 titles will be available by the end of the year.
And a bag of chips: The list of current and coming-soon headsets could go on for pages. Intriguing offerings are in the offing from well-known brands like Microsoft and Zeiss, as well as newcomers with novel approaches (e.g., Fove’s eye tracking, Merge’s kid-friendly design, and MindMaze’s thought control). Don’t see an option that fits your style, interests, or price point? Stick around. There’s bound to be something to suit coming soon to a shelf near you. I virtually guarantee it.
So, once you’ve got your hands on / head into your VR rig of choice, what can you do with it? Developers and content creators of all kinds are working hard to answer that question with a wide range of compelling options. Essentially, any media or communication experience—from video games to video conferencing—has the potential to find a new, enhanced incarnation via VR. Early forays into the wide-open world of VR applications are, as expected, a mixed bag, ranging from proof-of-concept novelties with limited scope, to profoundly innovative creations of breathtaking depth.
Again, web searches will quickly steer you in the right direction to find whatever interests you, but the list below offers a high-level review of some common categories of VR content.
Entertainment: The very nature of VR makes it a natural next step in entertainment and media consumption. If audiences everywhere are willing to pay extra for the more immersive, closer-to-life experience of viewing a movie in the Imax format, or upgrading their home televisions to HD, 4K, or 3D, then VR should appeal as well. Even without adding interactivity or taking advantage of the 360-degree environment, virtual reality can make multimedia storytelling and information sharing more powerful than ever.
Notable examples: YouTube 360º Videos, Within, NYT VR, Jaunt VR, Fulldive VR, Notes on Blindness, Discovery VR.
Gaming: The presence of top video game hardware and software companies among early VR leaders indicates how much promise the technology offers for gaming. With VR headsets being powered by devices also used (often heavily or exclusively) for games, it’s a logical leap to add interactivity to immersion, and transform users from viewers to protagonists. Many games, and some entire genres, are already founded on elements like a first-person-perspective, open exploration of a fictional world, or delivering an audio-visual experience so complete and compelling that the real world seems to slip away. All are areas tailor-made for VR.
Notable examples: Minecraft VR, End Space VR, Smash Hit VR, Land’s End, Job Simulator, Edge of Nowhere, CastleStorm VR, The Lab VR.
Education: Lest we think VR is all about fun and games, it’s important to note that the technology also has huge educational potential, taking distance learning, online courses, and other interactive learning resources to the next level. Instead of lecturing to dozens of students in a classroom, for instance, a teacher could speak to thousands attending class virtually, with the same sense of presence and engagement. Rather than watch a video about historic events or distant lands and cultures, students could experience them firsthand. Field trips would no longer be limited to places convenient and cost-effective to visit in person; instead, museums, landmarks, performances, and other sites and people would be accessible to everyone, everywhere.
Notable examples: InCell, The Night Café, Unimersiv, Anatomyou VR, Discovr Egypt: King Tut’s Tomb, Titans of Space VR.
Tourism: Field trips aren’t just for fifth graders. The travel industry as a whole could experience significant shifts in light of virtual reality. On the positive side, VR could bring the world to your living room, allowing you to visit the Great Wall of China, the Giza Pyramids, Machu Picchu, or the Arc d’Triomphe as easily as ordering pay-per-view. This kind of experience could make the world smaller, exposing millions to places and people they never would have known otherwise, and likely inspiring many to plan trips to go beyond what’s available via headset. If VR also dissuades some travelers who consider virtual “good enough” (perhaps wanting to save money or time, or minimize risk), however, the industry could suffer some setbacks as well.
Notable examples: Arte 360, Cardboard App, StreetView VR, AirPano, Google Expeditions, Sites in VR, Mars is a Real Place.
Socializing: Much of how we meet, communicate with, and fundamentally relate to other people is already heavily influenced by technology. It’s easy to imagine just about any site or app with a social element getting bigger and better with VR. Dating apps that enable actual virtual dates? Social platforms that let you post, share, comment, and connect in lifelike ways? Chat, mail, phone, and video apps that create the sense of being there in person and interacting in real time? All are possible—and many are already planned—with virtual reality.
Notable examples: AltspaceVR, vTime, BigScreen.
Business: For many, the holy grail of virtual reality is business applications. For those not in the business of creating content or delivering experiences, how can VR help boost the bottom line? Immersion and interaction are likely to be the key. Touring a virtual shop and checking out 3D merchandise could thoroughly blur the lines between online stores and brick-and-mortar merchants, for instance. On the B2B side, VR could also allow for detailed product prototyping and solution configuration, remote site tours or sales consultations, or simply integration of far-flung locations and team members.
Notable examples: IKEA VR Experience, Merrell TrailScape, eBay VR Department Store, Rukkus 360.
Once you’ve got a high-level view of VR hardware and applications, the most important (and often most difficult) question remains: what should you do about it? For many companies, simply being aware of virtual reality is enough for now, given how young the technology is and how limited its adoption thus far. If you don’t see an obvious or enticing opportunity to take advantage of VR capabilities in your market or industry (and you’re not facing or expecting disruption by competitors or customers who do), investing in VR now may not be worth the effort and expense.
That said, for companies that want to get into VR sooner rather than later, and don’t have a specific vision or situation guiding their activity, a few promising paths suggest themselves:
Gimmick: At worst, this term is a negative, suggesting something ill-conceived and superficial, with little real value or enduring appeal. This doesn’t have to be the case, however. A gimmick can also be something inventive and memorable, especially if it relates to something more meaningful and lasting. Virtual reality, for instance, can play a useful role in events (e.g., in-booth experience), marketing (e.g., virtual tours, immersive promotional video or sales presentation, 360-degree product viewer), or even sales and service (e.g., enhanced or virtual in-store experience). The key is not to use VR for its own sake and try to force-fit a foreign concept, but rather to amplify or expand on an existing element of your brand, product(s), or process in a legitimate way.
Leadership: For companies willing to embrace some risk, the time is right to leverage VR to do something bold and potentially disruptive. For the most part virtual reality offerings to date have attracted little attention beyond select audiences, such as gamers, content creators and developers, and passionate technology fans likely to be early adopters. The massive appeal and shocking, sudden success of an app like Niantic and Nintendo’s Pókemon Go (which, to be fair, uses augmented reality, or AR, rather than full virtual reality) demonstrates just how powerful a true “killer app” for VR can be. At this point, odds are very good that within a given industry, market, and area of focus, no definitive VR experience is yet available. Companies willing to invest the time and resources could seize the opportunity to break new ground, garner significant attention and admiration, and gain a serious competitive advantage. Being in the vanguard brings risk and reward (and not always in equal measure), but for young, ambitious companies, or those facing challenges that seem insurmountable by “safer” methods, betting big on VR could pay off.
Patience: The most reasonable course of action for many companies may be simply to wait and see. This doesn’t have to mean doing nothing and waiting passively for the future to arrive. It’s important to stay informed of new developments, especially within your industry and markets, in order to have a knowledgeable perspective and confident point of view. Being able to articulate your reasons for not investing in VR yet, sharing updates and offering insights on VR news relevant to your customers and stakeholders, and recognizing when the environment shifts to make action more promising can all position you well to make the most of virtual reality when the time is right. Ultimately, you may choose to lead the way, partner with those on the cutting edge, or continue to stay the course, but the guiding principle here is that first is not always best, and given the choice, most of us would opt for the latter.