Why the workplace is the next dimension for virtual reality
5th October 2016
For some, the words ‘virtual reality’ may call to mind science fiction, clunky 80s technology and video gamers’ basements, but thanks to advances in technology it’s now better and more affordable than ever before. We spoke to our resident VR experts, Jason Lovell and Mária Rakušanová, about the future of virtual reality in business and the organisations embracing it in new and surprising ways.
Q. What is the most inspired use of VR you’ve seen?
Jason: Part of the beauty of virtual reality is that there’s an endless list of potential uses, but the best examples really play to the strengths of VR, making the most of the opportunity to create an immersive experience.
What will make virtual reality compelling for a mass market is the fact that it can make you feel emotions in a different way. A great example is charity fundraising: we’re used to seeing harrowing images in 2D on a TV screen, but Unicef have used virtual reality show people inside a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan. What’s amazing is that the reaction is massively different to if you had seen it on a 2D screen – people were coming out of the experience crying because VR tricks your brain into believing you’re really there.
Maria: Fashion brands are massively embracing virtual reality too. Brands like Tommy Hilfiger have shot fashion shows in 360°, giving viewers a front row seat and behind-the-scenes tours, as well as interviews with the designers. So with VR you get an experience most people couldn’t have even if they were at the show in real life. They then had Gear VR in their flagship stores, so customers could experience the show and see the clothes from the show in the store. These days you have to go beyond providing a great retail experience; you have to provide entertainment too.
VR has the power to transcend time and space and transport you to worlds you otherwise wouldn’t be able to visit.
Q. What are the most interesting examples you’ve seen of virtual reality being used specifically in the workplace?
Jason: In the workplace there are two sides to VR: the external side which is engaging with the audience and your customers, but actually the internal side can be just as exciting. At the moment the only limit is our imagination – people still don’t fully know what they can do with the technology so we’re limited by not knowing where to start.
At the moment the only limit is our imagination.
There’s a lot of value in using virtual reality for training because you can convey complex messages in a much more absorbing way. For example, if health and safety is a big concern for your business, we know that some training for that can be perceived as being relatively unengaging. But using VR you can actually transport employees to the areas of danger; showing them where the hazards are and letting them interact with them. This delivers a compelling experience and hence a message that staff are more likely to remember, which saves you time and money. Studies have shown that people will retain that kind of information far more easily if you use virtual reality, because the brain believes you’re really there in that situation.
Maria: There’s a tech start-up called Medical Realities, which was founded by a surgeon and a virtual reality expert. They recently live-streamed a complex surgical operation using 360° camera to an audience of medical students around the world. They were teaching remotely from a fully equipped operating theatre, which is really useful for training student doctors in the developing world who might not be able to witness an operation like this in their own country.
Q. Are there any businesses that you think are embracing virtual reality particularly well?
Jason: The best example for me would be what Jaguar Land Rover and Audi are doing, both in terms of how they’re using it to engage with their customers, but also how they’re using it internally.
Jaguar Land Rover is using VR in their factories to test manufacturing processes before production begins. Their engineers and designers can collaborate from day one, using virtual reality to see and work with new products long before prototypes are even built. Jaguar also recently created the #FeelWimbledon experience, where customers could go and be on court with Andy Murray – that’s incredibly powerful. And then there’s Audi: you can now walk into an Audi showroom in the UK and Germany and test drive their cars virtually or configure the exact car you want.
Maria: There are also examples from the travel and hospitality sectors. Qantas was the first airline to embrace virtual reality as an experience for their passengers. They trialled using Gear VR in airport lounges and in the first class section of their planes on flights from Sydney and Melbourne so passengers could explore destinations like the Great Barrier Reef in VR before they arrived.
Another example is the travel agency Thomas Cook. They created 360° videos about their holiday destinations so customers in the UK, Belgium and Germany could use Gear VR headsets to “Look before you book” and experience the destination in virtual reality to help them choose a holiday.
Q. Do you think that any regular workplace tasks will be totally and permanently transformed by virtual reality in the future?
Jason: There’s huge potential here. One thing that’s quite exciting is how you can develop the social aspects of virtual reality. If you’re a business with a disparate workforce spread across multiple locations, then the ability to use VR to bring people together, for example running meetings or collaboration sessions in virtual reality, could completely change the way you do business.
Anything that lets people communicate in better and different ways is going to be exciting for businesses.
Maria: This sort of thing is already possible today. There are several social platforms on Oculus where you create a full body avatar of yourself and then meet and communicate with other people. AltSpaceVR, a US startup, is probably most relevant for business: it lets you create virtual meet-ups in its hangout spaces. What’s really fascinating is that we as humans are very visual beings, but actually the real power of this platform comes from the audio: it’s spatial audio so it feels incredibly realistic. It’s a fun, social experience, but there’s no reason you couldn’t use it professionally for conference calls and so on.
Q. You’ve both talked about using virtual reality for training staff, can you tell us more about that?
Maria: There’s huge potential for using VR to change employee behaviour. For example, if you have employees working in customer service roles, it can be hard for them to relate to the customers’ experience: maybe they’ve never been in that situation before. So you could use virtual reality to show them what it feels like to receive a fantastic – or even terrible – customer experience. It’s especially useful for new employees or employees who need to improve.
Jason: In theory VR could be useful for any business that has a customer service element, or wants to elicit certain behaviours from its staff. I’ve spoken to a lot of businesses that can see the potential for virtual reality in helping change employee behaviour, putting them in different situations to see how they react. And as virtual reality evolves so you’ll be able to move around the space and interact with 3D objects there’ll be even more possibilities.
The possibilities are endless and at the moment businesses are only just beginning to explore them.
Q. Some people have criticised VR for lacking a much-needed element of shared experience. Would you agree or disagree with this?
Maria: I would absolutely disagree. AltSpaceVR, the social platform I mentioned before, is one of the first three social platforms on Oculus, which already offers the chance to create your own identity and befriend people. When the platform is ready you’ll not only be able hang out with your friends in VR but also play a game together, explore a 360° video together, see each other in the video and even discuss what you’re seeing.
Jason: I think it’s still early days in the market but Facebook wouldn’t invest as much as they have in the Oculus platform if they didn’t plan to make it social. They realise that at this stage it’s about getting people to use the technology, getting people to realise the power of virtual reality. Then they’ll evolve the social element: it has to be there to be a compelling platform anyway, because people won’t engage with it if it makes them feel isolated.
Q. What are the main benefits of mobile virtual reality, like Gear VR, compared to tethered alternatives?
Jason: With mobile you get an inherent accessibility that you just don’t have with desktop virtual reality. At the moment there’s a small difference in the quality of experience, but it’s a completely different price-point. In the UK there are over three million people who’ve got a compatible handset; they can spend £80 to try virtual reality for themselves. For desktop VR you’d be looking at almost 10 times that just for the headset.
Over time, and sooner than people think, the lines between mobile and desktop virtual reality are going to blur because all the things that desktop VR has at the moment like hand-tracking, eye-tracking, motion-tracking – that will all come to mobile VR. And when that happens, all of a sudden you’ve got a much more portable, social platform that can really produce amazing experiences.
While the desktop solutions will always have their place, the mobile side is going to be the platform of choice for many businesses. It gives companies the scale and accessibility that you can’t get from any other virtual reality platform. The forecasts suggest that by 2020 the mobile market is probably going to be almost double the size of the tethered market.
Over time, the lines between mobile VR and desktop VR are going to blur.
Q. What will the future of virtual reality bring?
Jason: At the moment, you get a virtual reality headset, you download an app and watch the content. We’re very used to consuming content that way. But now that we’re allowing people to capture 360° video, people are going to be able to relive their own experiences in a way they couldn’t before. Imagine if you put a 360° degree camera in the middle of a significant event like a wedding: you can put a headset on and go back and experience it all over again. My belief is that user generated content like this will make VR more appealing to a much wider demographic.
Maria: I can imagine that virtual reality might replace the desktop at some point in the near future, maybe 10 years, or five years or less. So you might get to work and put on your VR or augmented reality headset. You would use hand gestures to read emails and you might create PowerPoint presentations. Or maybe it’s no longer PowerPoint as we know it. If you’re presenting to an audience who are all wearing virtual reality headsets then maybe there will be 3D objects rather than 2D slides in presentations. That could be what the distant future looks like.
Jason: Live streaming is going to be a massive part of VR’s future once people are more aware of it, and it actually doesn’t need to be an expensive solution. For example, sports events and sports clubs are really excited about the potential of streaming events in 360°, so you could actually view a sporting event in VR. The ideal is that you could go to a football match in virtual reality, you could put on your headset, pick your seat in the grounds, you would have high-resolution images and realistic, spatial sounds. Once you get to that level you’ve got a way of repurposing existing content creating content in a completely new medium.
With thanks to Jason Lovell, Senior Product Manager – VR, Wearables & SmartThings, Samsung Electronics and Mária Rakušanová, Senior Product Marketing Manager & VR lead, Samsung Mobile.