VR is Not Dead
Embraced by commercial and medical sectors, VR is a young technology on the rise
With any new technology, there will be those who accept and embrace it as well as those who are more sceptical. Virtual reality (VR) and other immersive technologies such as mixed reality (MR) and augmented reality (AR) are still fairly new. But there has already been considerable investment and take up of the technology, confounding many critics and analysts who have been eager to declare it ‘dead’.
The pessimistic attitude was on full display when Valve announced Half-Life Alyx VR. “Wow, is VR still a thing?” one commenter asked, a sentiment which can be seen in many places where videogames and VR intersect. Many people seem to view VR as either old news or failed or both. This can be put down to a failure of understanding that VR has already come too far to fail now.
Not only has a lot of money been invested into the technology, but it has already been adopted by several key areas far beyond videogames and the entertainment sector.
VR technology can be broadly compared to the various console generations. In this comparison, the Oculus Rift could be perhaps seen as the Atari 2600, whereas the Oculus Quest or Valve Index might be the Nintendo NES. This analogy shows that VR is still both some distance from attaining its full potential or gaining mainstream acceptance.
Instead, the major thrust of development for VR and MR has been in industry. Areas such as the Automotive and Medical sectors have been eager to integrate immersive technologies. For example Ford began using the Microsoft HoloLens for design and prototyping back in 2017. The company noted that using the HoloLens has several advantages over traditional methods of conceptualisation, as it was possible to easily take into account real-world limitations and demands without needing to fully rebuild the models from scratch. In addition, designers and engineers could overlay the new prototype over an existing car to demonstrate or adjust new features. This has the result of saving the company a great deal of time and money, allowing radical new ideas to be tested with much less risk.
A number of applications have been developed that combine immersive technology with medical imaging. In 2018, one such solution called OpenSight AR was cleared by the FDA for use in the USA. The technology again utilised the Microsoft HoloLens in order to allow surgeons and clinicians to overlay 2D or 3D medical images over patients, letting them interact with the images for accurate surgical planning. Even more remarkable, in 2016 cancer surgeon Shafi Ahmed used VR during an operation, which allowed other interested parties to watch the procedure, including not only other doctors but also concerned family and friends.
In fact, the medical and health sectors have been one of the major drivers of immersive technology. A study conducted by Ceders-Sinai Health Services Research and published in JMIR Mental Health showed that VR therapy can be helpful in reducing the perception of pain. Patients who were given a VR headset displaying calming and relaxing content – such as swimming in the ocean with whales – reported a 24% reduction in pain after use. Other hospitals such as Northern General Hospital in Yorkshire, UK have used VR headsets as ‘distraction therapy’ for burns patients during the painful process of changing dressings. Patients again reported significantly less pain when using the VR headsets.
VR has seen extensive use in training and development of staff, not just in the medical area. Massive companies such as Walmart have invested in VR for use in employee training. In 2018, Walmart bought over 17,000 Oculus Go headsets to be rolled out across its stores in the USA. Working alongside start-up company STRIVR, the program aimed to use VR to train Walmart employees in areas such as new technology, procedures and soft skills such as empathy and customer service. According to a Walmart blog post, use of VR in training boosts confidence and retention, and has seen test scores improve by 10-15%.
The companies who make the immersive technology have not been slow to investigate this revenue stream. In July 2019, HTC Vive announced a new business unit devoted exclusively to commercial uses of VR called VIVE Enterprise Solutions. The company said this unit would be focussed on providing a full portfolio of immersive technology solutions, for areas such as training, design, virtual collaboration and location-based entertainment. Other companies such as Vuzix have concentrated on fulfilling demand for enterprise-based AR. They offer AR smart-glasses which can allow workers in factories or warehouses to quickly find products, or repair faulty machinery with the use of helpful AR displays.
Since the launch of the Oculus Rift, commentators and critics have been on the lookout for VR’s ‘Killer App’, expecting it to emerge from the entertainment sector as so much attention was concentrated there. Instead, the killer app appears to be the commercial sector as a whole. Even if it takes many more years for VR and other immersive technology to be integrated into videogames, films and TV, the future is already here for much of the commercial sector.