Opinion: Robert McFarlane, head of labs at Head, looks at the possible applications of VR in the business world.
2016 looks to be the year of virtual reality. Once headset makers like Oculus Rift, Playstation VR, Gear VR and HTC Vive hit the shelves, we can expect a tsunami of new products and innovations from the gaming and entertainment sectors that make full use of this platform.
It’s exciting, being able to transport yourself into whole new worlds without having to leave your living room. No wonder it has captured the imagination of so many consumers, and received scepticism from those who think it is too good to be true.
One of the most interesting applications of VR will be in the business world. Already we are starting to see businesses explore potential uses for VR both for improving the buying experience, but also for improving internal business processes.
But VR sets are expensive, and a lot of people are asking the question: is VR right for me and my business? Indeed most people broadly have an understanding of what VR is, but not necessarily an understanding of what VR means for us in our daily lives.
To explore this, we need to look at what sort of things VR can be useful for, before approaching the question with business logic and a rational assessment of whether VR meets your needs.
Let’s look at two areas in which VR can be applied in business:
Sales and Marketing
VR is brilliant at storytelling. By building highly detailed worlds in which you can immerse yourself and explore, you can walk in the imagination of the storyteller and truly feel like you are part of the story.
For brands, this is a great opportunity to showcase not just the products themselves, but the stories behind the products. Currently, unless you go to an event or a showroom, your only interaction with a product is on a store shelf or an online shop. With VR, you can demo products in a 3D space, giving consumers the chance to try out products in an environment that you have created. With VR, someone can go to a house viewing, test drive a car, or try on a new outfit without having to leave their bedroom. VR can build desire for these products and motivate consumers to buy.
It works in a B2B context as well: GE, for instance, offered people (which included prospective investors, contractors and suppliers) the chance to visit their gas and oil exploration equipment in Brazil through a VR experience. And of course business networking can be a lot more personalised, interactive and human if you use a virtual "face to face" meeting rather than Skype’s relatively detached interface.
Training, depending on the sector you are in, can be a very expensive investment for your business. For the automotive, aerospace and military sectors, you will probably need to ship large and expensive equipment. For medical professionals, you either need a real life patient or a detailed simulation if you want to practice with the full range of scenarios that staff are likely to face. And sometimes you need to train your staff to handle scenarios that are difficult to replicate safely in real life; after all, a firefighter a needs burning building to learn how to fight fires.
In a VR program, these scenarios can be simulated without the expensive costs that come with using real life props and locations. The pilot can practice in a much more immersive environment, the firefighter can practice in a much larger building or a more powerful fire, and the medical professional can practice diagnosing a wider range of simulated patients. In these instances where training is difficult, VR can certainly be beneficial.
When is VR right for me?
It’s easy to get hyped about VR and the enormous potential it holds. But it’s also easy to dismiss the technology entirely, treating it as a fad that will come and go. Neither of these approaches is wise.
The truth is this: there are some cases in which VR is useful, and some cases in which it is not. While VR can make training much more cost effective for the automotive industry, this may not be the case for an office-based job. Similarly, you’re unlikely to create a VR experience around a tin of beans, but it might be worth considering for luxury product.
The key is to rationally assess what uses VR might have in your company, and evaluate whether it is worth the cost. Some questions that you should consider:
1. What precisely would we use VR for?
2. How much will it cost?
3. What software are we going to use? Will we need to get something developed for ourselves?
4. Would a VR experience offer something meaningfully beneficial that could not be achieved at a lower cost through another means?
VR is, at the end of the day, an expensive monitor. There are many potential applications that could help your business, but an even larger number of applications that would prove to be a waste of money. Sorting the good uses from the bad uses means divorcing yourself from the hype that has built around VR, and thinking through the business logic.
Certainly, VR is an exciting technology and we should look forward to what it can offer in the future. But we should be careful to neither fall for the hype, nor dismiss it out of hand.