Virtual reality has spent so much time in the realm of science fiction (think Star Trek or the Matrix movies) that perhaps the only surprising thing is that it has taken this long to become a real-life consumer experience.
Within the past 18 months, headsets from Google and Samsung have allowed users to explore the 360-degree, 3D videos that are the defining feature of virtual reality—or just VR, to those in the know. Google’s Cardboard and the Samsung Gear VR cover your eyes much like ski googles or a scuba-mask, immersing you in a new “reality” from all angles. Learn how to explore the world with a virtual reality headset.)
VR content can be live-action footage, such as the short documentaries the The New York Times has recently started producing, allowing people to experience reporting from around the globe. Or it can be an entirely animated environment such as the spaceship cockpit Eve: Valkyrie, one of the first video games to use VR.
This year, more VR headsets will come to market, including the much-anticipated Oculus Rift, the product that launched contemporary interest in virtual reality. The company evolved from a 2012 Kickstarter project to a $2 billion Facebook acquisition without ever releasing a consumer product under its own name. (The Gear VR uses Oculus technology, and Oculus has shipped tens of thousands of Rift prototypes to content developers.)
The Rift and most of the other new headsets coming out are targeted at the video game market, and the companies that produce games are busy creating the content.
But that’s just the starting point. Movie directors are already experimenting with virtual reality, and the 2016 Sundance Film Festival featured about 30 VR experiences, including feature films. If you’re someone who has repeatedly watched the Lord of the Rings movies, picking up new details each time, imagine what it would be like to study a film in which no corner of the set was ever off-camera. The question is how many people will actually like that experience and feel it’s worth the cost of the equipment.
Virtual reality isn’t just for entertainment, though. We’ve asked innovators in fields from education to sports to industrial design to explain how they will use virtual reality. Here's what they had to say.
“We created Google Expeditions to bring field trips into the classroom. There are so many possibilities. We’re working on allowing high-school students to do virtual visits to colleges and for college students to do virtual career expeditions. One of my favorite use cases is for science classes to be able to go inside the human body. Another is for students learning about ecosystems to see through the perspective of an animal—you’d understand a lot better why certain creatures are the way they are.”—Jen Holland, program manager, Google Apps for Education
“Home remodeling can cause strife and stress, partly because couples can’t agree on their visions. The Lowe’s Holoroom bridges the gap between blueprints and the finished product. Customers can step into an immersive 3D model and look at their kitchen or bathroom with different products or finishes. When they leave, they can take a Google Cardboard viewer home with them to revisit the room and share it with others.”—Kyle Nel, executive director, Lowe’s Innovation Labs
“For 12 years, we’ve researched how the technology can create empathy in users. There’s a famous concept in sociology called the Contact Hypothesis, which says that if you put two different groups of people together, over time they will learn to share goals and get along. With virtual reality, we can take that to the extreme and literally allow someone to become someone else. Instead of being in contact, you can walk a mile in their shoes.”—Jeremy Bailenson, founder of the Virtual Human Interaction Lab at Stanford University
"Virtual reality makes us feel like we’re interacting with people on a deeper level. Think about how much better it was to talk on an old landline. The handset cradled your head, there was zero lag time, and you just relaxed and had a conversation in a way cell phones don’t allow. On the other hand, I just went on tour for a month and it was lovely keeping up with family on FaceTime. Even though there’s a delay and the picture quality is low, adding body language creates a real intimacy. VR is going to make that experience much more wonderful and immersive. Communication is the thing that’s going to carry it to ubiquity. That’s what makes the tech much more than a gimmick.”—Adam Savage, co-host, Discovery Channel’s Mythbusters
“If you think about it, traditional film study in sports is unrealistic because you’re watching the action from overhead, way behind the play, or the sidelines. What we do is give the athlete—in most cases, a quarterback—the view they will actually have on the field. In football, there are very tight restrictions on how much time players can have on the practice field, so we’re giving them the ability to get in more mental reps from the right viewpoint by wearing a headset to review practice film. The more reps they get from their actual playing angle, the more they can speed up their decision-making process. We’re also working with basketball, baseball, and hockey teams, and we’ve begun hearing from law-enforcement and the military.”—Derek Belch, CEO and co-founder, StriVR Immersive Performance Training
“We first got interested in virtual reality when we saw a refugee camp film made for the U.N. We showed it to some people around the newsroom, and they were just blown away. Hardened editors on the international desk would take off the headset and say, ‘Listen, I’ve edited hundreds of stories about refugees, and I’ve never had an experience like this one.’ One of the bigger surprises for us was how challenging it can be to craft a narrative when you don’t have any of the typical editing moves. There’s no framing the shot. You can’t zoom in or out. So we spent a lot of time in the editing suite trying to get it right. But you can imagine a scenario where VR is simply part of our reporting when breaking news occurs.”—Jake Silverstein, editor in chief, New York Times Magazine
“So often in the design process, you want to iterate, but it’s frustrating to wait a week for some manufacturing process. Even with 3D printing, it can take a while to make a prototype. With technology like Microsoft’s HoloLens, you can work in 3D in real time. You still want a physical prototype to get a sense for how something feels, but now you can make design decisions earlier.”—Garin Gardiner, senior business development manager, Autodesk; leader of Autodesk’s integration with Microsoft HoloLens
“Virtual reality is now a standard part of the global product-development process. As a car is designed, the engineers conduct immersive reviews at various stages. We can turn a CAD [computer-aided design] model into a full-scale virtual car that shows components and functions in context. We take a holistic look at the fit and finish, the interior and exterior harmony, and engineering issues. If we’re worried that one part is too close to another, we can look at it analytically. Instead of looking at a CAD model on a flat screen, we get inside a 3D representation of the vehicle.”—Elizabeth Baron, virtual reality and advanced visualization technical specialist, Ford Motor Co.
“For a hotel brand, inspiring travelers to take a trip is an important part of marketing. For so long, people could have only static, 2D experiences—flipping through photos or watching a video. With the Marriott Teleporter, you have a kiosk about the size of a telephone booth that virtually transports people to a black-sand beach in Kauai. In addition to wearing an Oculus headset, they are given the sensation of sun on their face, wind in their hair, the smell of ocean water. Most recently we’ve worked with Samsung to deliver kits to people’s hotel rooms to let them experience VR Postcards, which told the stories of real travelers and experiences that changed them—whether it was in the streets of Beijing or the mountains of the Andes. Everyone took off the headset and said, ‘I want to go there. I want to see that view.’ ”—Michael Dail, vice president of global brand marketing, Marriott Hotels & Resorts
Editor's Note: This article also appeared in the March 2016 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.
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