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Why virtual reality is more than just a game

Don’t judge me, but a few months back, I nearly got into a fight with a cartoon guy.

I was at Auckland’s ARVR Garage, trying out a nifty virtual reality cricket game created by a kiwi start-up company.

Having donned a VR headset, and with a cricket bat in hand, I started off in “easy mode” and soon felt fairly chuffed as I scored a boundary with a nice straight drive.

Then, selecting “expert mode”, a helmet visor dropped over my face and the atmosphere suddenly felt tense. I looked up to see the animated bowler steaming in with ferocious intensity on his face. I gulped. The ball came hard and fast, a vicious bouncer that nearly took my head off. I flailed hopelessly, missed and swore loudly.

I genuinely felt angry. How dare this virtual player bowl such a dangerous delivery first ball? I was really annoyed at that cartoon guy.

As I learned in that cricket game, the immersivity of AR/VR technology is easy to underestimate. So too is the opportunity for this technology to solve real business problems – a situation highlighted in The New Zealand VR/AR Association’s excellent Virtual Gets Real report released last month.

The report provides a fascinating insight into the fast-growing local VR industry which is predicted to generate $324 million in annual revenues and employ more than 2200 people within the next two years.

That growth is part of an explosion in the international AR and VR market which is forecast by analyst firm IDC to at least double each year over the next four years and to hit $US215 billion globally in 2021.

Off the back of the NZVRARA report, there are some messages I think are important for New Zealand businesses considering innovating with AR/VR technology:

Immersive technology comes in several forms

While the terminology used to describe augmented reality and virtual reality can differ, you can think about this technology as layering computer-generated content over the top of reality.

Where you completely replace reality with computer-generated content, that’s virtual reality. Where the user experiences a mix of reality and computer-generated content, that’s augmented reality (or mixed reality).

Innovators shouldn’t only think about what the user can see. It is also possible to layer on computer-generated sound, touch (e.g. haptic feedback) and even smell and taste.

AR/VR has the potential to deliver more than a visual and audio experience. (Source: Callaghan Innovation)

More than just a game

AR/VR technology has proven it can enable engaging games and entertainment experiences, but it is now also finding its place solving industry and business problems. A prime example is immersive training, where the technology can be used to provide a simulated environment to sharpen the skills of professionals including pilots, surgeons, police and soldiers.

Callaghan Innovation experts are working on a project that will soon allow people with tetraplegia to use VR to master the use of their new wheelchairs. The company at the heart of the collaboration, Christchurch-based MTech Games, is eyeing global markets and sees its VR Wheelchair Trainer as the foundation for a suite of applications for people with disabilities.

Meanwhile, Callaghan Innovation scientist Dr Mark Poletti’s work includes finding world-leading solutions to the problem of creating realistic “soundscapes” for virtual spaces. This has recently involved developing mathematical and engineering solutions to help online virtual platforms convert surround sound to “binaural” (two-ear) sound suitable for playback over headphones.

Globally, there are numerous other examples of AR/VR being applied in the business world, including:

  • Manufacturing: as automation and data exchange becomes an increasingly important aspect of manufacturing technologies (Industry 4.0), AR tools, including Daqri smart helmets, are helping workers solve factory problems.
  • Prototyping: manufacturers, including vehicle maker Ford, are using VR prototyping to transform their businesses.
  • Healthcare: applications including treatment of dementia, anxiety, rehabilitation and projections of veins over the skin (e.g. medical imaging solutions provider Accuvein).
  • Retail: virtual showrooms and other pre-sale experiences are enabling customers to digitally try before they buy.
  • Tourism: sales experiences in VR that allow holidaymakers to “travel there, before you travel there”.
  • Immersive journalism: where VR is part of the storytelling.
  • Remote collaboration: where someone in head office with specialist knowledge helps workers in the field via AR.
  • Design/Architecture: allowing visualisation experiences and fly-throughs.
  • Communications: applications such as smart earbuds used to translate speech (e.g. Waverly Labs).

Just the beginning

Those applications, however, are just the beginning. Looking to the future, AR has the potential to catalyse a paradigm shift in terms of the impact technology has on our lives.

When a company finally gets an AR headset device into market that has mass appeal, desirability and enhanced functionality, AR could become ubiquitous.

Then AR will converge with artificial intelligence, the internet of things, wearable technologies and data analytics.

At that point, the individual, via the headset, will be able to interact seamlessly with a smart environment.

The headset will be able to serve up real-time, customised and specialised content based on what the individual is doing, or is about to do.

That will drive growth of an industry that creates apps for this new generation of devices.

And, by the way, you might not need a phone anymore!

Significant change is on the horizon when AR/VR hardware, content and apps combine to create a new immersive technology paradigm. (Source: Callaghan Innovation)
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