The arrival of Oculus, and its subsequent acquisition by Facebook, created new buzz around virtual reality (VR), but much of the excitement focuses on hardware, as does the resurgent skepticism. But virtual reality is more than headsets and controllers. These devices will evolve into smaller, less intrusive, less socially awkward devices over time. Beyond its value for delivering entertainment experiences, VR offers a platform that transforms data into realistic experiences that can be explored, manipulated and engaged across the virtual boundary and back into the real world.
Virtual Reality, and its cousin, Augment Reality (AR), are potentially going to change the way everybody does business. No other technology can so vividly and immersively create new experiences that leverage the underlying power of big data at the human level. But the wide adoption of virtual reality isn’t assured. While hardware appears capable of producing first-class immersive experiences, software design and implementation are lagging, as are the extensions of the real world into VR that will turn passiveness and isolation into interaction.
In order to succeed, VR developers must address seven fundamental issues or risk being marginalized and specialized, never achieving the wide adoption promised at the dawn of this, yet again, nascent market.
1. Extend enterprise software
Developers must rapidly extend their applications into VR in a way that goes beyond demonstrations and gimmicks. That means fundamentally rethinking how a VR version of a spreadsheet operates, or understanding how a VR simulated supply chain could increase the effectiveness of materials movements, or how a VR retail floor might improve traffic flow and merchandizing opportunities. Some of these VR experiences may come from startups focused on new capabilities or market disruption, but many of the early proof points will come from established enterprise software vendors who build VR experiences by extending existing features.
2. Integrate real world feedback
VR must reach beyond the head (eyes and brain), and the hands, to provide feedback through haptics and other technologies embedded in clothing, furniture and physical surroundings. This feedback will need to be bi-directional. Sensors from the environment may react to a presence, sending data into the VR experience, while those worn by the participant will bridge sensation between the real world and the VR environment. This network of sensors will provide the VR environment with data to create a simulated sense of touch, or edge, contour or texture. One of the more interesting forms of feedback will come when the VR environment renders data, such as a market heat map, so it can be experienced physically, not just visually. For many business applications, where the sound of a machine or the vibration of a platform offer subtle clues to experts, VR will need to be able to relay this information so that simulations offer a full range of learning capabilities — and, in operations, the sweep of sensory inputs that an operator would experience if he or she was actually present at a facility.
3. Create useful experiences
Entertainment focuses VR on engagement, while business-oriented VR should focus on useful, functional applications. It isn’t that developers should avoid engaging environments, but they must find a balance between fantasy and real-world detail that will offer experiences that perform their roles efficiently and accurately, without becoming so minimalist that a two-dimensional experience remains a viable alternative.
4. Address fine motor control and integrate existing tools
After experiencing several demonstrations within VR worlds created by Oculus and HTC, it is clear that that controllers can’t can’t mimic fine motor control. It is unfair to ask business people to relearn the precise movements they have internalized for activities ranging from object assembly to surgery. Some purely virtual experiences may be candidates for improved user interfaces, and emergent work may evolve out of VR. In those cases, the introduction of new physical controllers will just be part of the next experience. VR, however, should not attempt to replace existing tools already honed to a specific job or role. For VR to succeed in business, developers will need to integrate existing tools, all types of tools, including basic pieces of metal, like wrenches, into the virtual environment — where the tool, its weight and its operation, remain consistent with real world expectations. One of the most promising areas for VR is in training, and if that training fails to integrate tools, or limits their use to non-tool-wielding scenarios, then VR will fail to deliver on that promise.
5. Provide accurate models
Accurate models don’t just mean gathering 3D coordinates and rendering them in a 3D, immersive environment. When it comes to VR in business, many of the engineering systems and simulators that act today as standalone systems must be integrated into the VR system. VR must include accurate physics, it must be able to render business data from acoustics, environmental, electrical and mechanical systems. An acoustic engineer should be able to ask a VR experience for new headphones to “show them” the sound. VR environments will also need deep metadata and relationships that model how objects behave, how they interact, and if they are mechanical, how they operate.
6. Deliver the right operating system metaphor
Windows and folders provided a good transition between computing and the real world. Without graphical user interfaces computers would probably remain devices for hobbyists, engineers and scientists. The metaphor generated the market. Since the advent of Windows and the Macintosh OS very little fundamental change has occurred in the interaction models. The metaphor was set.
Virtual reality is still looking for its metaphor. Because VR is richer than a windowed-PC environment, there are many more choices about which metaphors to choose. That creates a combinatorial dilemma. Currently software developers are tracking to an evolutionary model, experimenting, learning, discarding. Because VR is new, it is also likely that rather than one metaphor, the market will see niches form around particular applications or vertical markets.
If VR is to become a mass market success, though, a leader or two will emerge that will offer a metaphor that consistently works for a wide range of use cases. Right now the best game in town is Oculus, but these are early days and first-mover advantage may not be enough to maintain the Oculus environment in its leadership position as investment in VR operating environments heats up over the next two years.
7. Overcome hype and social stigma
As with other emerging technology, VR runs the risk that people’s imaginations, fueled by marketing hype, will be disappointed by actual implementations. Wearing a headset, perhaps even being tethered to a computer, will offer suboptimal experiences for those who have grown accustomed to mobile computing on their terms. VR will also need to overcome the social stigma associated with wearing headsets.
Enterprise adopters, however, need to keep in mind that the workplace is not the same as going out for dinner. People work with all types of machinery, and wear all manner of work-related clothing when on the job. While the social stigma related to headsets may play into consumer adoption concerns, those in the workplace should be more open to experimentation when it leads to higher quality products and improved safety. Over time, new technologies will likely lead to less intrusive headsets and more seamlessly blended experiences. Even if entertainment is the first rocket VR straps to, it may be its regular use at work that makes it socially acceptable.
Making VR Real for Business
Competitive concerns in business — from poorly trained employees, to underutilized data, to mistakes revealed too late in a manufacturing process — will drive entrepreneurs to build VR-based business applications. Some applications will fail, and some will succeed, but all will help VR developers and adopters better align the technology to business needs, and refine the technology to help customers accomplish their business objectives.
Within the next year people will probably see a VR headset at work, and if not, they will hear plenty of people talking about them. Some will be enthusiastic, some dismissive. Many readers will remember the days when phones were used exclusively for voice communications. A handful of business people inside of companies imagined how small computing devices could transform the work experience. Those people either left their companies to create hardware or software companies, or quickly found ways to integrate mobile devices into the business when it arrived. Business leaders need to ask today if they can risk being on the wrong side of the technology conversation when it comes to virtual reality and augmented reality. Perhaps they need to at least put on a headset and experience it for themselves before they make a decision.
Editor’s Note: Daniel Rasmus is one of the speakers at SEA VR 2015 on Wednesday in Bellevue, Wash.