A NEW REALITY From gaming to education and medicine, virtual reality offers promising applications
Facebook’s recent purchase of Oculus VR is only the most high-profile acquisition in a growing list of significant investments in virtual reality (VR) technologies. While video gaming is an obvious application, the technology also could impact most industries, including education, health care and manufacturing.
Twenty years ago, virtual reality (VR) involved putting a microwave-sized contraption over your head to enter a pixelated, semi-3D world. It was intended to provide video gamers with a new immersive experience but failed to deliver on its promise.
The technology has come a long way. Over the past year, VR investments from some of the world’s biggest, most influential corporations have set off an explosion of interest in VR technologies for applications that range from gaming to education and alternative, drug-free medical therapies.
Facebook started the groundswell in March 2014 with its US$2 billion purchase of Oculus VR, the Irvine, California-based company behind Oculus Rift, a VR headset in limited release to videogame makers and movie studios. At the time, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg described his vision for VR use, including “enjoying a courtside seat at a game, studying in a classroom of students and teachers all over the world or consulting with a doctor face-to-face – just by putting on goggles in your home.”
A few days later, Sony announced its competing Project Morpheus headset add-on for Playstation 4. Then, in September 2014, Samsung announced Gear VR, a new mobile VR headset using the Galaxy Note 4, created by Samsung and powered by Oculus. All headsets will be available for purchase by 2015.
With the trend clearly established by technology’s biggest names, numerous companies and startups are eager to grab their own piece of the immersive VR market.
One company looking to meet the anticipated demand for VR games is nDreams, a game developer and publisher based in Farnborough, UK. After its founders experienced the first Oculus headset and Sony’s Morpheus prototype last year, the company committed to focus exclusively on VR.
“VR offers a sense of ‘presence’ – the feeling that you’re actually somewhere else,” said Patrick O’Luanaigh, CEO of nDreams. “You believe you’re in another space. This makes emotional reactions much more powerful. I remember trying the new Alien: Isolation game on the Oculus DK2 at a game show this year. I actually ripped the headset off in fear as the alien rushed in for the kill. Because you believe you’re there, everything is so much more intense.”
That intensity offers a new ingredient in an already lucrative global gaming industry where every competitor is looking for an edge.
“VR isn’t great for every game, but for games that place you into another world, games with story and narrative and any game that wants players to experience something, VR is a significant step above a TV or monitor,” O’Luanaigh said. “I think there is a genuinely huge future for virtual reality, and that’s why we’re backing it.”
The sense of being in another world presents opportunities for applications beyond gaming, however. One of the most promising uses of VR is in education, a movement being led by companies that include zSpace, a Sunnyvale, California-based technology provider focused on learning through immersive exploration.
The company developed the zSpace STEM Lab, an interactive, 3D virtual educational platform designed to promote STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education for students from kindergarten through 12th grade. The combination of the zSpace platform and intuitive STEM education software aims to provide educators and students with a personalized learning experience.
“When we open up the 3D world and deal with information in the way that we are wired to – spatial rather than flat – it unleashes all this potential.”Chief Technology Officer, zSpace
In education, “we are restricted by 2D technology, and we’ve just come to accept it,” zSpace Chief Technology Officer Dave Chavez said. “When we open up the 3D world and deal with information in the way that we are wired to – spatial rather than flat – it unleashes all this potential. Kids aren’t afraid of it at all; they get in there and they’re completely immersed and engaged.”
zSpace is developing apps focused on STEM topics that include mechanics, electromagnetism and electricity. But Chavez believes the potential for VR in education is virtually limitless.
“With VR, you can (safely) do things that are dangerous, or you can do things that are impossible in the classroom, but you can also do really straightforward assignments,” Chavez said. “For instance, you can set up a complex experiment for 30 minutes and then flip a switch to ‘clean it all up’ and start back with it the next day, because you’ve got this virtual workbench.”
The ability to create a virtual working environment in VR has potential for industry as well. The AppliedVR division of Los Angeles-based marketing research consultancy firm Lieberman Research Worldwide is exploring the use of VR in numerous areas, including public health, market research and marketing services.
Lieberman Research Worldwide CEO David Sackman points to behavioral health as one of the fields where VR technology will be most beneficial.
“We are using VR to better understand the unconscious and emotions in a variety of contexts,” Sackman said. “We think that, beyond gaming, the area of behavior change can benefit the most.”
Academic researchers have successfully experimented with a range of treatment areas that use VR to change unhealthy behaviors. These include phobia treatments, post-traumatic stress disorder, drug addiction recovery and work on self-confidence and self-esteem.
“Since VR affects your unconscious and shows (that) your rational mind cannot control everything, it should make behavior change easier,” Sackman said. “Because you’re in this immersive environment that can affect your unconscious, we believe that it’s going to be much easier for people to learn the motivation and skills they need to lose weight, for example. Users don’t have to force themselves to lose weight; instead they’ll have absorbed (the training) and it’ll become much more a part of them.”
AppliedVR is currently working on a variety of behavior-change applications and is in discussions with numerous large organizations about health, wellness and medical-related applications. One notable example comes from international risk management firm Travelers Insurance, which is creating an industrial safety solution to reduce accidents in factories and warehouses.
“One of the reasons this solution has so much potential is that it can break the laws of physics,” Sackman said. “Using VR, people can fly around a warehouse identifying accident points and helping co-workers. This increases their empathy, sensitivity and team orientation and will reduce the number of potential accidents. It certainly changes the way people are thinking about safety in the workplace.”
VR experiments also are being conducted in hospital settings to provide pre-admitted patients with virtual tours of where they will be treated. This helps prepare patients for surgery, for example, by providing a view of the surgical room, the recovery room and hospital room, potentially reducing the stress of the unknown.
“Our idea is to build a business that can do good in the world,” Sackman said.
The year ahead is critical for VR technologies, as the public begins to assess initial applications in gaming and other industries. Research firm MarketsandMarkets of Dallas, Texas (USA), predicts that manufacturers of VR and augmented-reality hardware will generate US$1.06 billion in revenue globally by 2018.
“I think you’ll see new kinds of VR products launch that only make sense in VR,” nDreams’ O’Luanaigh said. “That’s part of what excites us the most – it won’t just be ‘traditional games’ using VR, but entirely new experiences. And the best games in VR, as with any new platform, will have been designed specifically with VR in mind.”
The use of 3D will help narrow the gap between the real and virtual worlds, zSpace’s Chavez said. “That flat representation we’ve all come to accept is really artificial and we’ve accepted it because the technology hasn’t allowed us anything else,” he said. “Companies are starting to see the value, and now the question is how to get it to people. I think (adoption) is coming quickly as the fundamental value of this kind of interface is being recognized.” ◆
FIVE AREAS WHERE IS LIKELY TO THRIVE
EVE: Valkyrie, developed by CCP Games of Reykjavik, Iceland, is a multiplayer shooter game set in a virtual universe; UK-based Creative Assembly will soon release Alien: Isolation, a survival horror stealth game that forms part of the Alien franchise.
The University of Southern California’s Institute for Creative Technologies, based in Los Angeles, is working on numerous clinical psychology applications, including an exposure therapy to treat soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Podrift, a virtual meeting space in development by a global team of volunteers, aims to make online meetings more engaging with the Oculus Rift headset.
EcoMUVE, a curriculum research project at the Harvard Graduate School of Education in Cambridge, Massachusetts (USA), teaches middle school students about ecosystems in an immersive virtual environment; Irvine, California-based EON Reality’s VR labs cover subjects that include chemistry and geography.
Aerospace company Lockheed Martin, based in Bethesda, Maryland (USA), uses virtual avatars to design and build a range of satellites and aircraft, saving on expensive and difficult flight testing; Ford Motor Company, based in Dearborn, Michigan (USA), uses virtual reality to design both interior and exterior design features of new models.