lt’s Sunday morning and I’m standing in my lounge in north London. It’s a room I’ve been thinking of redecorating for a while but it’s raining outside and I’m low on inspiration. However, by downloading an app onto my smartphone and strapping on a Google Cardboard headset, which costs around £5, I’m instantly transported to a virtual lounge in a virtual world. I look left and right, and my real world red sofa, glass topped table and plant pots have been replaced by a round, wooden table with three candles on top, a rather sophisticated grey three piece sofa suite and a vase of red flowers. Not exactly my style, but it’s a start.
The app I’m using is Planner 5D, the creation of a Lithuanian design firm. Its aim is to allow users to begin designing their own dream homes, from the floor plan to the fittings and fixtures, then experience what their bedroom or lounge or kitchen would feel like before investing in the furniture. My inexpert experimentation sees me accidentally place a large double bed in the virtual kitchen and a garden table in the bathroom.
Artists and inventors have been trying to create otherworldly experiences for centuries. Notable examples include panoramic paintings in circular rooms that brought viewers into the heart of historical scenes, the ‘virtual tourism’ of 19th century stereoscopes and Morton Heilig’s Sensorama of the 1950s, which placed viewers in an arcade-like video booth that stimulated all the senses. VR has been a niche interest area for most of its history, yet by the early 1990s it had gained wider traction. However, despite a lot of hype, many attempts at creating VR gaming experiences at this time collapsed – the technology was nowhere near powerful enough and much of the hardware left people feeling nauseous. However, in the intervening years, processors, motion sensors and visual technology have advanced rapidly, and VR is now enticingly close to becoming a mainstream technology.
The technology behind virtual reality has come on in leaps and bounds in recent years. From high-end pieces of kit, such as the Occulus Rift, which retail at around £500, to the aforementioned Google Cardboard for VR amateurs, it is now very easy to get your hands on tools that can transport you away into a virtual world. And, there’s no doubt that it’s a fun and impressive experience – when my Google Cardboard headset arrived, I was amazed how immersive it could be. Despite the slightly grainy quality, my trips on roller coaster apps were able to trick my sense of perception and gave me the same stomach lurching experience as the theme park rides of my childhood.
While VR is great fun, its long-term potential reaches way beyond the world of video games and gimmicky experiences. In a report published earlier this year, Deloitte estimates that 2016 will be VR’s first billion-dollar year, with around $700m on hardware sales, and the rest on content. And while most of this success is expected to come from video game related sales, they do expect enterprise usage to get some of the pie. VR is also expected to grow beyond its current niche use cases and become much more ubiquitous. A report published by Goldman Sachs developed one scenario where revenue from the industry could be as high as $182bn by 2025.
So what might these wider applications of VR look like? It may be too soon to say definitively, but a number of cutting-edge researchers and designers are pointing the way forward.
Frame of mind
When psychologists are trying to diagnose a child with ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) they usually carry out a wide range of cognitive tests, observations in the classroom as well as interviews with parents and teachers. However, a limitation of these tests is that they may take the child away from their ‘natural environment’. Débora Areces Martinez, a PhD student at the University of Oviedo explains: “As previous investigations affirmed, the symptomatology of ADHD does not always occur in a room without any distractors and under the supervision of an expert.” Ms Martinez’s research is currently attempting to explore how useful VR headsets can be in the diagnosis of ADHD.
The research places participants in a virtual classroom, with a virtual teacher, other pupils and a range of possible distractions. The advantage here is that because the student is so immersed in the virtual experience, the researchers are able to observe them in situ much more effectively. While the studies are at a relatively early stage, the results so far are promising. Ms Martinez continues: “At the moment, we could say that virtual reality tools have shown to be effective in the diagnosis of ADHD. The variables provided by the instrument do not differ from those of other Continuous Performance Tests regarding attention deficit, and hyperactivity/impulsivity measures. However, [our research] presents an important advance at assessment level, since it complements this information, differentiating these measures by the sensory modality (visual versus auditory), presence or absence of ecological distractors, and task type.”
Ms Martinez explains that using a 3D headset allows the tracking and testing of a greater number of variables, and therefore could potentially produce more accurate results than alternative tests. At the very least, this kind of testing can enhance the accuracy of diagnosis.
Kantar Retail, is carrying out a very different kind of research. Victoria Bradshaw, Global Communications Manager at the shopping specialists, explains how the agency is using virtual reality headsets to help their retail clients better understand how to place products on shelves in store.
“Whether it’s a food retail store, a high-end fashion store, a fast food restaurant or even a store of the future, we can virtualise any space or environment. Time and cost are reduced, the decision making experience is step changed and the new levels of connectivity between departments in getting to market delivers extreme competitive advantage.” Kantar Retail’s VR team can offer clients a much richer understanding of how to place products on shelves around the store. For decades, supermarkets have been carrying out market research on how shelf position can increase sales of certain goods. However, setting up these experiments in the real world is time consuming and still offers fairly limited variation. By contrast, a virtual reality aisle layout can be created in moments, and multiple variations can be tested.
It is this ability to visualise different variations on a theme that makes VR particularly appealing in the world of architecture. Until now, building plans have always been represented in 2D or as 3D scale models. However, since the brain is relatively inefficient at imagining what these designs would look like in reality, the resulting layout of a building can still end up feeling quite different to what was intended.
Connor Handley-Collins, co-founder of TruVision, a Plymouth-based firm that produces VR for architecture explains:
“VR and AR (augmented reality) in architecture is great for understanding the design process… with the ability to explore issues in the dynamics of the structure and how the spaces will be used. Architects for years have been creating real life miniature models of their creations which would take far more time to create than a virtual reality experience.”
Besides saving time, and giving a ‘real life’ experience of what the building would feel like in advance, VR can potentially save building firms a lot of money in other areas too. Mr Handley-Collins continues: “One of our most recent projects for HAB Housing, owned by designer and television presenter Kevin McCloud, has been extremely successful. Their current site, Loveden Fields in Winchester, required four of their house types for the development to be created in virtual reality. The site still doesn’t have a single house standing and the ability to use virtual reality has enabled their prospective clients to have an insight into how the homes will look and feel. The project has helped them sell directly from plan and is essentially hoping to eradicate the need for a show home.”
How far will VR go?
Mr Handley-Collins believes there is a real sense of excitement about the possibilities VR will offer amongst those currently using it in industry: “I certainly think it will revolutionise the industry in years to come, with large public structures adopting the technology to show the end product and house builders adapting the same technology to sell from plan; it is only going to assist the industry rather than hinder it.”
Ms Bradshaw agrees: “VR will further embed itself in the ecosystem of retail and play a critical enabling role in building the future of retail. Whether we will all start staying at home to do our shopping via our VR headset is yet to be seen. What is more certain is that there is no doubt shoppers are thoroughly embracing the experience that VR brings and if that helps the purchase process whether at home, in-store or somewhere else then retail should grab that opportunity with both hands.”
Virtual Reality is still in a relatively early phase of development when it comes to its use in industry. What the examples covered here do show, is that there is a great degree of potential for enhancing and extending existing practices and methods. How widespread it becomes is yet to be seen, but its potential is virtually limitless.