Virtual reality is the one-time next big thing that never quite was. So why is it now coming in from the cold and promising to transform our working lives and our businesses for good? We ask the experts what every leader should know
Edwin Link designed the first-ever flight simulator in the late 1920s. Thirty years later, cinematographer Morton Heilig developed the Sensorama – an arcade-game-style cabinet featuring stereo speakers, a stereoscopic 3D display, smell generators and a vibrating chair.
An episode of Doctor Who alluded to virtual reality (VR) in 1975, Jaron Lanier popularised the term in 1987 and the movie Lawnmower Man brought it to a mass audience in 1993.
More recently, VR has enjoyed a spate of publicity thanks to some groundbreaking developments. In March 2014, Facebook purchased VR headset maker Oculus VR for $2bn (then £1.2bn). In late 2015, a new clinical simulation centre, which emulates conflagrations and road accidents in order to train paramedics, was opened by Sadiq Khan, then MP for Tooting, at the University of London.
In October 2016, Sony launched its headset for the PlayStation 4 video game console that has shifted VR firmly into the mainstream of entertainment technology.
So, we can safely assume that, towed upwards by the juggernaut of the digital revolution, VR has enjoyed a steady ascendancy, right? Well, not quite. Not so long ago, it looked like VR was set to join flying cars and jetpacks in the basement repository of visions of the future which never came to fruition.
“The potential was there from the 1980s and the early era of 3D,” says David Cockburn-Price, managing director of Cheshire-based Virtalis – one of the UK’s longest-running VR companies – “but computers then didn’t have the processing power. So a virtual environment back then involved lag – the picture moved a fraction later than your head did, and it made some people feel horribly sick. VR got a bad reputation. The entire concept became toxic. No one was interested.”
Adrian Leu, chief executive of London-based Inition – which devises virtual reality internal communications systems for giants such as British Aerospace, and also works with NGOs to create immersive experiences for prospective donors – agrees.
“The devices were very big, very expensive, and content was pretty basic, so the actual experience was not very compelling,” he says. “It was mainly the coming on stage of Oculus [in summer 2012], and the fact that the price tag for those devices has gone down quite a lot, that helped the whole thing take off.”
One might assume that vast improvements in computer graphics (compare FIFA 2017’s footballers to those in FIFA 94) would have improved the VR experience. Not so, according to Cockburn-Price, thanks to a phenomenon known in the trade as ‘uncanny valley’.
“A lot of Virtalis’s VR environments can be rendered in different colours from real life, as psychologically it’s better to make a point of difference. Abertay University, while working on how to minimise cyber-sickness, found that in extremely realistic virtual environments people become stripped of emotion and believability – cartoon-like virtual environments are actually perceived as more authentic.”
Despite the various hurdles thrown in its path, the basic premise of VR has always been loaded with potential: “Our brains are actually very happy to suspend disbelief and accept a computer-generated environment,” as Cockburn-Price points out.
So why is it only now coming in from the cold? Vast improvements in computer processing power are a factor, as is accessibility. “The technology’s become more widely available, and for something to gain traction it has to come within reach of a larger number of people,” he says.
“Once, engineering companies had to use an enormous mainframe computer that cost £300,000 to do even basic VR and a further £50,000 a year to maintain. Now you can use an ordinary engineering CAD (computer-aided design) workstation with our Visionary Render software. It’s become more accessible through tumbling costs.”
Employment of virtual reality in the military goes back to those aforementioned flight simulators, used during the Second World War, and continues to this day (in November, design firm Plextek completed a proof-of-concept project with the MoD to create an immersive skills training system for trainee tank drivers and pilots using Oculus Rift).
In the commercial world, meanwhile, those gaining the most traction from VR tend to be a very specific type of organisation, according to Cockburn-Price. “At the moment, the people who have the largest amount to save are the ones who are spending the most on it – those without massive production lines like aerospace, or the shipbuilding and nuclear industries,” he says.
“If you’re making a nuclear sub, amending your nuclear power plant or designing a limited run of helicopters, getting it right first time is a super-high-stakes business. Basically, anyone who uses a CAD licence should now have a VR licence as well.”
Even with scale models, he points out, every design tweak drains the coffers, and personnel need to be employed to keep them updated. As such, one of Virtalis’s clients bolts its VR suites onto gantries surrounding the hull of a nuclear submarine.
“The engineers, IT professionals, welders and pipe fitters and so on all go in, use the VR systems and software without help from IT professionals, immerse themselves in a design problem, then go out and work on the real submarine knowing they fully understand the parts and procedure.”
Next to benefit from VR, says Cockburn-Price, will be the automotive sector – “already, a two-and-a half-year gap between car models has been reduced to 18 months due to digital prototyping,” he says – and engineering companies, with those that perform tricky or dangerous tasks perhaps gaining most from being able to carry out dress rehearsals in a parallel cyber universe.
Another area of huge potential is marketing and communications. One Virtalis client has installed its ActiveWorks VR suites all over the world in order to have real-time collaborative design reviews every day of the week.
Another, a global manufacturer of agricultural off-road construction vehicles, bought a virtual reality system for design purposes, but ended up using it at marketing events to offer customers sneak previews of future vehicles.
Ashley Keeler, head of EMEA sales at WorldViz – a provider of VR solutions to Fortune 500 companies, academic institutions and government agencies worldwide – also advocates customer involvement in the immersive experience. “Using VR as a tool for visualising 3D data is still one of our largest verticals,” he says.
“A great example would be architects or construction companies who are able to showcase buildings or objects to their customer base during the design phase. This allows users to get feedback or iterate on the design in real time.”
Chris Jones, business development director at InVirt Reality – a Yeovil-based software technology company, specialising in interactive VR systems for sectors including aerospace, logistics and healthcare – agrees. He cites the showcasing of holiday destinations, concerts and product launches as areas of great potential.
“High-end auctioneers now showcase luxury properties in VR, which could significantly disrupt [traditional] real estate business models,” he says. “VR technology could accelerate the erosion in value of physical stores. We developed a VR store-planning tool for a well-known UK retail chain, which allows the retailer to visualise new store layouts and visual merchandising without the need for expensive physical mock-ups.
“Another example of using VR which reduces the need for expensive physical assets is logistics warehouse training, where staff can train in virtual environments and operate virtual machinery, exactly the same way they would do with real assets but in a safe, more cost-effective manner.”
Keeler also believes in VR’s vast potential for training – especially with new developments in haptics (the ‘feeling’ of objects in the virtual world).
“We can now virtually handle museum artefacts or learn how to weld without putting the objects or ourselves in danger,” he says. “So scenarios based around the operation of equipment that is otherwise difficult to access, expensive to damage or physically dangerous to work with [have potential].”
The desk-bound among us are most likely to see virtual reality enter our lives to facilitate more intimate, sophisticated communications – as demonstrated by a new application WorldViz has developed named Skofield.
“It allows companies to have multiple users ‘dialled’ into the same virtual environment, taking advantage of VR’s ability to make someone feel ‘present’ in a virtual location,” Keeler explains. “It drastically reduces the need for teams to travel to physical locations.”
It’s premature to claim a virtual reality revolution is fully underway. “People are right to get excited, but a lot has to be done before it really thrives,” says Will Higham, consumer futurist and founder of trends consultancy Next Big Thing.
“We haven’t got the killer app yet, from a consumer point of view. In terms of mass market, it’s still a bit clunky, still has a lot of motion sickness issues. It’s too expensive for people to have in their homes.”
For now, says Higham, augmented reality (AR) – despite “being seen as VR’s less attractive brother” – is more likely to affect our lives. “It’s much more usable, and could have a much bigger impact
in the short term,” he says.
“The reaction to Google Glass was a bit unfortunate, as the idea of some sort of headset that enables you to see information in front of you is phenomenal. People get AR: we saw what happened with Pokémon Go – tens of millions used it – and that was augmented reality, so developers can now say ‘OK, my app is like Pokémon Go but for golf…’”
And VR? “I wouldn’t invest huge amounts of money into it right now, but do keep an eye on it. It is the future, it could just take a while.”
Business analysts certainly agree that it is “the future” – they now predict, says Chris Jones, that the virtual reality market could be worth $80bn (£64bn) by 2025. “The consumer market, particularly gamers, will be the early adopters of VR,” he says, “but the commercial market will follow.”
There are some nagging problems with technology – “The user experience is passive, as people can’t interact with objects in the virtual scene”, Jones says, while Cockburn-Price points out the ongoing problems with haptics and specifically the need for wearable virtual reality items, such as sensor gloves, to be recalibrated to each new user’s hand.
But the technology is, of course – this is the 2010s – improving exponentially. Cockburn-Price says, with technology such as zSpace, a concept developed by California-based Whipsaw that already allows users to see ‘objects’ floating in 3D at the desktop, in five years’ time we’ll all be “space enabled”; or able to see virtual objects right in front of our eyes.
Leu predicts that miniaturisation of the technology will be the next major step in VR’s evolution, while Dr Emine Mine Thompson of Northumbria University who has been introducing VR technologies to her students over the last 11 years and is programme leader of the MSc Future Cities course, suggests that ubiquity and accessibility will drive its omnipresence in our working practices.
“Anybody who has a smartphone can now experience VR, thanks to apps like Google Cardboard [the tech giant’s head-mounted smartphone accessory],” she says. “Put your phone inside it, and it will transfer you into a different world.”
Higham points to VR’s potential in the medical field – “It’s interesting to think of the impact it could have on people who are paraplegics, and revival of use of limbs and so on,” he says – and Thompson, programme leader of the university’s MSc Future Cities course, concurs.
“I actually used it to draw some blood from my own vein, about 10 years ago at an NHS event,” she says. “The device was just like a microscope – you put your arm underneath the viewer and the haptic device became the needle. You could actually see the needle playing with your skin texture.”
Given such advances, might we one day see remote operations – open heart surgery on a patient in, say, Louisiana performed in real time by surgeons in South Korea? Don’t write it off, says Thompson. “It could be possible. There are already robots doing surgery.”
Meanwhile, back in the business world, should leaders of SMEs be keeping tabs on VR’s progress? “I think so,” Thompson says. “For a while it lost its wow factor, but it’s increasingly becoming part of our lives, and our understanding of the world. And because it’s getting cheaper and more accessible, smaller companies can get involved, and should do in order to keep a step ahead.”
“Everyone should be keeping an eye on it,” agrees Adrian Leu. “There’s a road map for evolving those technologies from what they are at the moment – mostly isolated experiences – to a time when they’ll be embedded into all the other systems that an enterprise has, from content management systems to customer relationship management systems and databases.”
In other words, VR’s hiatus is well and truly in the tangible, real world’s rear-view mirror.
Virtual reality in numbers
£7,500 The price of a VR headset designed in the late 1980s by American VR pioneer Jaron Lanier, who popularised the term virtual reality
16 The percentage of women who would dabble with virtual reality between the sheets, according to a survey by Stockholm-based fertility tracking app, Natural Cycles
2050 The year by which VR technology will have replaced high street retail, according to a UK report – The Future of Shopping – published in November
£349 The price of Sony’s PlayStation VR headset – £200 less than the Oculus Rift and more than £400 cheaper than HTC Vive, at the time of writing
£190 The price of Oculus Touch – the virtual reality pioneer’s new two-hand touch motion controllers