Virtual reality, much like artificial intelligence, machine learning, and the internet of things is one of those techy terms that the average person has probably heard about but not bothered to learn about beyond a superficial understanding. You may think that virtual reality seems cool in theory but is altogether superfluous and unnecessary- much like hoverboards, 3D televisions, or the Apple Watch. An interesting idea, but not worth the expensive price tag.
If your understanding of virtual reality stops at video games and exploring the world from your couch through a bulky headset, then you might want to change your way of thinking. The virtual reality you think you know is not the one that will shape the future. Virtual reality is evolving beyond its application in gaming and changing the way we shop, the way we are entertained, and the way we experience life. Here are some of the ways that virtual reality both empowers and entertains, explaining why it is such a revolutionary technology.
Twenty years ago, ordering an item online was virtually unheard of. Amazon was founded as an online book distributor in 1994 but didn’t take off until the implementation of high-speed internet. If you wanted to purchase something outside of a store, you found it in a catalog and dialed a number to speak with a sales representative.
Virtual reality takes the instant gratification of e-commerce one step further and puts more power into the hands of the buyer by allowing them greater control over their purchases. Through simulation of ownership, consumers can fully understand a product before making a purchase. For example, GPS technology allows home buyers to check out the property before viewing it with a realtor or tourists to scope out an area before committing to a trip. Consumers can get an idea of the size, condition, and uses of the product before buying it – think of it as a test drive. Spatially referenced shopping allows online shoppers to navigate through a brick-and-mortar store virtually, the advantages being better memory retention and the possibility of stumbling upon something unexpected.
Advances in virtual reality are even helping veterans overcome PTSD. With virtual reality, veterans can enter a virtual war zone where they relive the horrors of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in a controlled environment through a form of treatment known as exposure therapy. The idea behind this therapy is that through habituation, traumatic memories will be robbed of their power over time. When between 11 and 20 percent of soldiers who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan between 2001 and 2010 experience PTSD in a given year and nearly half do not seek treatment, this unconventional method could be a groundbreaking new treatment option.
Remember when Wii Sports came out and you got to feel like skilled athletes just by waving some nunchucks around? Virtual reality takes sports simulation to the next level by allowing people to step into the shoes of their favorite athletes, as 13-year-old Nicholas Montes experienced with the Esurance Behind the Plate with Buster Posey VR Experience at the All-Star FanFest in Miami Beach, Florida. This virtual reality simulator allows baseball fans to “catch” balls traveling at velocities of 86-93 mph from a generic pitcher. A sensitized glove even simulates the sensation of catching the ball.
Gaming may be the most obvious application for virtual reality, but it is important to remember that virtual reality is, first and foremost, an agent for storytelling. It has a variety of practical applications, particularly for the entertainment industry and business start-ups. The film industry is already capitalizing on the potential of VR as an innovative and immersive storytelling experience, while businesses such as Icelandic start-up Mure VR are using virtual reality to promote workplace wellness.
Virtual reality may still be in its early stage as a practical and readily accepted form of technology; however, these examples serve as a reminder that nothing is inherently useless. It all comes down to how you use it. Need even more evidence of VR’s staying power? It is no longer a privilege reserved for the wealthy, as the Oculus Rift headset just went down in price, from $599 to $399, to make VR headsets “a part of daily life for billions of people,” as Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced in 2014.