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The Virtual Reality Report: What is virtual reality and how is it being used across different industries?

In this post Alex, who looks after workplace training at FutureLearn, explores the mysterious world of virtual reality and the possibilities it holds for healthcare, translation, training and education.

In this post Alex, who looks after workplace training at FutureLearn, explores the mysterious world of virtual reality and the possibilities it holds for healthcare, translation, training and education.

Although limited numbers of people have access to virtual and augmented reality products, their popularity is on the rise. The success of Pokemon GO, a mobile game that cleverly straddles game world and reality, is a clear indication of this popularity. The number of daily active users in the US alone has reached around 21 million.

It is expected that the worldwide VR market will be worth $4.6 billion by 2017 (Statista, 2016). This isn’t surprising given the increasing number of VR sets making their way onto the market. In this blog I’ll be exploring the types of products in the market right now and highlighting some of the current practical uses of VR in different industries.

Where could virtual reality take us?
Where could VR take us?

Before I go any further and to avoid confusion, it is worth clarify the difference between Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality:

Virtual reality (VR) takes the user to an entirely new environment, computer-generated or filmed, through a headset, whereas augmented reality (AR) shows a computer generated image interacting with the physical objects around it through a screen, a projection or headset. For example, the Oculus Rift delivers virtual reality, while the Microsoft Hololens creates an augmented reality environment. For this post I’ll mostly be focusing on VR.

What are the types of virtual reality products on the market at the moment?

The majority of devices available on the market come in the form of head mounted displays. Here are a few of the more commonly used ones:

Oculus Rift

A virtual reality headset with integrated headphones and rotational tracking, it is targeted at consumers and requires connection to a high-end PC in order to work. The UK consumer version release date is set for 20th September 2016.

Playstation VR

For those wanting a more immersive experience and want to use VR without the aid of an expensive PC, this VR headset connects to your PlayStation 4 via a cable and isn’t phone-based.

HTC Vive

A VR headset that is connected to a high-end PC tower via a cable. So far it’s been used for mainly gaming but this is likely to change over the coming years. A VR startup is currently exploring ways to remove the cable given the Vive’s popularity. As a wearer of glasses, and having recently trialled the Vive, this device does not allow for focus adjustments, making the experience blurry and glasses need to be removed prior to use.

Google Cardboard

One of the most lo-fi VR options, Google Cardboard is a foldout VR viewer made of cardboard that a user slots their smartphone into. It is intended to encourage development in VR applications given its low cost.

Samsung Gear VR

Uses your smartphone and has been promoted as a never seen before entertainment experience, offering 360 videos, photos and gaming.

Zeiss VR One

Similar to Google Cardboard this turns your smartphone into VR using a cardboard style headset.

Microsoft Hololens

An AR headset that gives you the chance to interact with holograms.

Magic Leap

Although they do not have an official device launched yet Magic Leap are definitely one to watch. They are working on a “head-mounted virtual retinal display which superimposes 3D computer-generated imagery over real world objects, by projecting a digital light field into the user’s eye”.

How could virtual reality be used in different industries?

VR and AR have long been hyped to change the way we live, often promising a future straight out of a sci-fi novel. But will that promise ever be fulfilled?

Well excitement over the future of VR/AR is certainly still going strong: in a recent survey, 65% of UK businesses planned to use VR in the future. Learning and development professionals in particular, are excited about it’s application to learning. For a sector that can often move quite slowly, products like VR/AR offer new and exciting ways to deliver learning; early use suggests that technical training, events, health and safety and on-boarding/induction could all be possible areas to consider when it comes to VR.

And VR holds all sorts of possibilities for other sectors too, let’s have a look at just a few of them:

VR and Healthcare

There are many ways VR is being used in healthcare, but some of the most interesting fall into two areas: practicing, and connecting.

Let’s look at the first one. You don’t normally get practice runs when it comes to healthcare, or at least the practice runs aren’t especially realistic. This especially true when it comes to surgery, which is tricky when students need to have a thorough understanding of standard procedures and experienced professionals need to learn new or high-risk procedures regularly. This is where VR comes in: using virtual models of humans and VR surgeons are able to get a much more realistic experience of what it might be like to work on a real person.

VR also presents new ways for healthcare to become more connected. For instance VR has been used to offer window into surgery, using apps like Medical Realities, which allows you to view surgery live from all over the world – almost as if you’re in the room.

And it’s being explored for use during in-flight emergencies. Vital Enterprises are exploring ways to help passengers on planes requiring medical assistance connect with an ER doctor by using a VR headset and satellite connection. The physician on the ground is able to see what is happening in the air and guide the passenger/crew through possible emergency instructions.

However VR in healthcare is still in its infancy, especially for inventive treatments. Any new innovations will need to be supported with clinical adequacy through regulated human trials.  What will be fascinating however, is watching how VR, artificial intelligence, big data and deep learning combine to create smart simulations that react in real-time to the changes by those using it.

VR and Language

More and more of our interactions aren’t happening in person with meetings or conference calls taking place via Skype or on the phone. VR can help fill the gaps left by this tech – for instance it would allow you to pick up on nonverbal communication that you would miss with more conventional teleconferencing facilities. As remote working becomes more common teams will have to work harder to ensure they’re cohesive – could VR be one of the ways of doing that?

VR also holds a lot of possibilities for staff who are spread across the globe working in different countries, because it allows for real time translation – removing language barriers. This means a lot of great knock on effects like less travel equalling saved money and less pollution, or more international collaboration equalling more diverse inputs and hopefully a better product or solution.

So how would this actually look? Think Google hangouts delivered fully in virtual reality rather than through a computer screen. Or imagine VR using Facebook or social networks – could the future of social be virtual? Will we all meet together in the same virtual space with friends across the world?

VR and training

Work training all too often is dull for employees: it involves clicking through some dodgy animations and trying to trick the timing system into thinking you’ve spent the right amount of time doing an exercise. Or it might involve sitting through an out of date video or series of lectures. And for it employers it can often be expensive and difficult to organise (of course training with FutureLearn means none of these things).

VR could turn all of this on it’s head. For employees training would no longer be passive, you’d have to engage with exercises – giving you a better insight into what the job involves and giving you a chance to test yourself in a more realistic environment. And for employers costly role play training days could be ditched and you could easily reach employees all over the globe for a fraction of the cost.

VR and Education

Education is changing. More classes are being taken online, which means people in rural areas without physical access to institutions now have education available to them. But remote learning is difficult when it comes to more practical subjects –  like picking up a trade. This is where virtual and augmented reality might be able to help.

It’s easy to see how AR/VR could, in the long-term, have the biggest impact on education – it offers students a new and exciting way to learn new subjects, it’s easy to integrate with course design, it helps students explore the wider world without costly travel.

For instance Google Expeditions allow students to go on virtual reality field trips using Google Cardboard – over a 1 million students are already using it.

As Ondrej Homola, co-founder of the Microsoft Hololens put it “we believe it encourages more absorption…more immersion. We think it will increase attention spans.”

Will VR help lower the high boredom levels usually associated with school? Will it live up to the hype? If it’s put to good use and developed with the help of educators (like HoloLens are doing), it may well do.

VR and FutureLearn

At FutureLearn we keep a keen eye on new tech developments; we’re always looking for new ways to improve learning. In fact a few existing FutureLearn partners are already experimenting with new digital technologies like VR, including it as part of their upcoming courses so watch this space in the next few months.

What does the immediate future hold for VR and AR?

Despite feeling new, versions of VR have existed since the 1950s – and as is so often true with new tech, there’s no revolution just plenty of evolution. And we’re still not quite at the Minority Report point yet.

But as VR headsets become more affordable and available to consumers you’d expect to see more VR and AR around, there’s no doubt we’ll see both more in everyday life over the next five to ten years, especially in industries which could really benefit like some of the ones mentioned above.

This being said I’d expect uptake of VR within workplaces is to be slow because although costs have come down with the advent of Google Cardboard, the capital outlay by businesses wishing to use VR remains high – especially where customised and personalised applications are needed.

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