Five Application Fields of Virtual Reality

This means business

In my previous post I tried to give a general overview of the future and promises of Augmented and Virtual Reality for business and non-leisure applications. In this post, I want to enter more into the detail of these applications and what they consist of. We’ll focus on Virtual Reality and will get back to Augmented Reality in a later post; while there are many similarities between these technologies, the use cases for these two technologies can be sometimes quite different.

Application Fields

While arranging a first list of applications for VR, what looked at first like a long list of unrelated niches started to follow an appearance of order in my mind. So I decided to broadly regroup these into five categories:

  • Education
  • Communication
  • Analysis
  • Commerce
  • Leisure

Any sort of classification will inevitably be challenged in the future especially at such an early stage. The point of this classification is not to create a rigid classification, it is to give ourselves an initial structure to explore and quickly memorize the uses of VR. Hopefully, new areas will emerge over time that will challenge this order.

Education and Learning

Simulation is probably the oldest known application of Virtual Reality with flight and military simulations. The first simulators have appeared in the 1970s.

VR on springs

There might not always be full stereoscopic vision but the principle of virtual reality is here — immerse the user in an environment that is fully artificial and simulated by computer. Additionally, the equipment allows a limited simulation of gravity thanks to a system of springs. The high cost of training on real equipment (planes or other military equipment) has made it economically valuable from the earliest days of VR.

The high cost of the equipment limited the scope of application of VR simulation but the recent spread of popular and much cheaper devices is leading to an extension of this scope. New types of training are being tested and deployed on VR: police, customer contact … It’s too early to assess the full impact and usefulness of these applications, but the principle is the same. At least the long history of the use of VR for simulation proves the purpose of training through immersion.

Education

The application of VR doesn’t stop at training but is being extended to other educational areas.

Several museums and exhibitions have started including VR experiments as part of major exhibitions. For instance, the Tate Modern is organising an exhibition on Modigliani with a visit of the artist’s workshop in early 20th Century Paris in VR. I had a chance to enjoy it and it does help to plunge into the atmosphere of the period and to illustrate some aspects of Modigliani’s life by immersion into his workshop. It is not that spectacular, but it is instructive.

Other fields include chemistryastronomy… potentially most sciences. The idea is to impress users. Immersion helps to attract (visitors, tourists, children…) but also to memorise; immersion is key.

Mental health

I imagine it will be controversial to include mental health along with education. I believe mental health and education should be in a continuum, just as it is for hygiene and physical health.

In any case, treatments are being developed in particular for the treatment of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). PTSD is one of the most obvious candidates for VR based therapies because one of the most common treatments is based on reliving the events in a controlled environment and with a therapist’s help in order to start and accelerate the healing process. Early experiments have been led from 1998 on Vietnam veterans and more have followed with Virtual Iraq.

Communication and collaboration

One of the most promising aspects of immersion is collaborative work, where the ability to engage fully in a discussion on 3D models or representations of data combined with the feeling of physical presence of ‘interlocutors’ will be helpful to business users.

Social networking

This might sound paradoxical since VR obliges users to isolate themselves from their immediate environment, but at the same time AR and even VR offer an intriguing new possibility — deeper connection on long distances. This would be possible through the use of avatars. The lower quality of images (at least at the current stage) would be more than compensated by the feeling of immersion which can bring us more fully into the conversation. What should make a big difference is whether we can see other parties’ facial expressions. Without these expressions, communication will be severely hampered. Fortunately work is already on-going on this and the technology required is now well-known: a camera and facial recognition software.

Social networking is the very reason why Facebook bought Oculus (and later launched Facebook Spaces). More recently, Microsoft bought Altspace VR, a new social network in VR, while Linden Labs (the creators of Second Life) started Sansar and the founder of Second Life started another one, High Fidelity. While most of these are focused on the consumer market, business meetings are also targeted, for instance by Manzalab’sapplication Teemew.

By itself, virtual meeting is already a powerful application, but what is also important is how this could be embedded into other applications — such as architecture.

Architecture

The case for VR in architecture belongs both to the field of commerce (presenting projects to clients) and communication (collaborating between designers), but for the time being the collaborative aspect is the most emphasised. This is where architects will spend most of their time.

Until now, architects would usually rely on 2D displays of their models, or on expensive mock-ups with long building times. VR allows to cut this cycle down to a matter of minutes.

Analysis

Data visualisation

The idea of data visualisation in 3D has been discredited by Excel and its infamous 3D charts, most notably the 3D Pie Chart, one of the least informative charts ever designed.

We shouldn’t stop there, however. New tools are being developed for VR: VirtualiticsDali, and a few others. These new tools are not aimed at widespread use since the price of the equipment required would make it impractical, but instead at niche users such as Data scientists who need to dive through massive amounts of data. For these advanced users, data visualisation in VR combined with other applications (virtual meetings) and technologies (Machine Learning) can accelerate their work.

Commerce

VR might help to further realise the early promises of e-commerce. While the success of Amazon has more than proven the point, there is still a lot of room for improvement — again, through better immersion and information of clients.

The most early use cases, we can assume, will be where:

  • The third dimension is important (space, volume, depth…)
  • Expedition and delivery costs are high, return costs prohibitive

This points to furniture or estate agents as the most immediate possibilities. Ikea has already developed applications both for VR and AR. These applications allow users to try and place furniture either in a virtual flat or in their real flat with an iPhone. The rates for the App are still pretty low, but there will certainly be progress here.

The Value of VR: Immersion and Information

As we have seen here, there is a wide range of potential applications for VR, for business and non-leisure uses. However, we can say that these applications generally rest upon two basic principles: immersion and information.

Immersion is more complete with VR, but even AR gives the feeling of something real, and that will bring our full attention to the matter at hand. This explains in particular why training and education is one of the first fields of application for VR.

Information is maybe a bit more controversial. After all, each of our eyes sees in only two dimensions. Many users might not be able to fully benefit from the third dimension — either people blind in one eye or people with stereoblindness. Still, the use of the third dimension gives an opportunity for displaying and obtaining more information. This will be important in domains where the understanding of depth is critical (such as architecture), or where the huge volume of data is so overwhelming that the third dimension makes a real difference to traditional data visualisation tools in 2D.

Understanding Virtual Reality

This canvas — the five application fields (Education, Communication, Analysis, Commerce and Leisure) and the two value axes (Immersion and Information) will help us to analyse and understand the future evolution of Virtual Reality. We will try to draw a more complete picture of what the future might look like for AR and VR.

In the next post, I plan to spend more time on Augmented Reality itself and its different application fields. If there’s any topic you would like me to discuss in one of my future posts, please ask.

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