The Past, Present and Future of Virtual Reality

By Mark Stone, Contributor

Virtual Reality (VR) is here, and not only for entertainment. Increasingly, the technology is being adopted as a business tool in industries ranging from banking to health care.

But how is VR relevant to a business? And how did we get to this point? Its roots may have been in gaming, but one of its first applications was quite literally out of this world.

A Brief History

While virtual reality is regarded as a new technology, the science behind the framework is centuries old. In 1838, English scientist Charles Wheatstone discovered that the brain could process different two-dimensional images with each eye to form a single object of three dimensions. His stereoscope concept was later patented in 1939 with the View-Master, used for virtual tourism.

VR’s adoption accelerated in the 1980s, when NASA developed a virtual-reality-type system for astronauts. In 1985, a NASA device allowed astronauts to test space concepts by presenting visual information to them via a computer-generated image on their large headset.

Ten years later, the Forte VFX1 headgear —a consumer-level head-mounted display with motion sensors and 3D audio—was released; it was the first of its kind, and it was geared to gaming die-hards and cost around $600. Today, VR headset options are expanding rapidly and start as low as $20 for models that work with smartphones.

How VR Works

In essence, VR technology tricks our brains and visual and aural senses into believing that what we are seeing is real. As we look up and down, left and right in our VR headsets, our senses react as they would in real life. Throw surround-sound audio into the mix, and the experience becomes even more intense, immersing us further into the virtual world. Because our brains don’t require perfection to believe we are in a different world, it’s easier for us to think what we’re experiencing is real.

VR headsets come in both tethered and wireless (smartphone) options. The headset lenses, placed between your eyes, transmit pixels that focus and reshape the picture for each eye. The stereoscopic 3-D image is created by angling the two 2-D images to mimic how each of our eyes views the world differently.

Other internal components used to create the VR experience include a gyroscope (calculates orientation), accelerometer (measures gravity to tell which way is up), and a magnetometer (acts as a compass).

VR Applications—At a Glance

VR technology is popular in entertainment, and with good reason: It can take people to places they can’t go physically or conveniently. But for the business world, the crux of virtual reality is its ability to simulate situations—and to use viewers’ simulated experiences to draw new data. Identifying whether VR is right for your organization is a matter of applying that concept to existing business processes, such as sales, product development, and training.

Where can you send customers that they can’t conveniently or affordably go? For example, Adrian Grenier and Dell teamed up to send people on a virtual underwater expedition to educate audiences about the work of the Lonely Whale Foundation.

What situations can you put employees in to make them better at their jobs? UPS, for example, is using VR to train delivery drivers to deal with hazardous road conditions.

How can you help customers understand your product or service better? For example, IKEA is using virtual reality to showcase new goods. With VR, customers walk away with greater, more visceral knowledge of your product or service than words and 2-D images can convey.

How can you improve product design, engineering and development? Aircraft manufacturers, for example, are using virtual reality to test designs. Area Sq uses VR to enable their clients to visualize the design of their new office spaces.

How can you improve productivity and collaboration? Companies are beginning to look into VR to hold virtual conferences and reduce travel costs. Caveat: Don’t look to virtual reality for a complete change in productivity workflow. Employees aren’t going to strap on a headset and work in a VR environment for eight hours a day.

The Future

According to the Fall 2016 Virtual Reality Industry Report, co-released by Greenlight Insights and Road to VR, we may be six to eight years away from widespread acceptance. However, as applications of virtual reality in the workplace increase, so will demand. In fact, 77 percent of millennials state they are willing to use virtual and/or augmented reality in the workplace, and 52 percent believe augmented and virtual reality applications would increase productivity. The time is now to start thinking about how virtual reality can benefit your organization, employees and customers.