VR is a computer-simulated experience where a person can interact with a 3D environment using a headset or a multi-projected environment.
We can trace VR technology back as far as 1962 when US cinematographer Morton Heilig invented the “Sensorama.” Determined to create the “cinema of the future,” his mechanical device simulated an immersive motorcycle ride through New York using a stereoscopic color display, fans, odor emitters, a stereo‐sound system, and a motional chair. Heilig was, however, unable to secure funding to continue his work. While the Sensorama had to be left behind, the history of immersive technologies was just beginning.
Through the 1970s and 1990s, the evolution of VR focused first and foremost on medical and military training. Some companies anticipated its potential: NASA and MIT were among the first to create navigable virtual worlds, and Atari and Sega tried developing their own hardware systems for games.
VR continued its slow yet steady growth until 2012 when the Oculus Rift was presented at the E3 video games show, instantly catching Facebook’s attention. Soon after, Playstation, HTC, and Samsung followed with their own equipment, introducing consumer VR sets that pushed 3D cinema and games into the mainstream and opened the door to all kinds of innovative apps.
VR in Business
In architecture, virtual representations of buildings such as floor plans, 3D renderings, and models have been staples of design, widely used to show and discuss ideas with clients. However, being an immersive technology, VR can transport multiple stakeholders into virtual representations of rooms, floors, and buildings — and even better, it can allow them to interact with it by opening windows and doors, turning lights on and off, and playing with furniture arrangements. The experience could even expand to leisure uses, such as 3D virtual vacations consisting of 360° videos and interactive maps with information beacons.
VR has also been successfully used by realtors to show prospective residents their future home, for example, through tours that also can include background music or sound effects to create ambiance. And although seeing a property in VR doesn’t completely replace the physical experience, buyers can narrow down the properties that meet their criteria and save estate agents and themselves valuable time. Retail businesses can also benefit from virtual 3D shopping stores as a new and interesting form of ecommerce, letting customers step into them and interact with items to see how they look. Users can not only try on a certain item of clothing, but they can also choose its color seamlessly and in real-time.
For companies that can offer such experiences, the competitive advantages of using VR and immersive marketing can be quite significant.
VR in Healthcare
VR has also demonstrated several applications for clinical and consumer healthcare. From high-quality surgical training to patient education and disease awareness, the technology can improve the accuracy and effectiveness of current procedures and help both the caregiver and the patient.
When headsets showing calming landscapes were given to patients before undergoing surgery at St. George’s Hospital in London, all participants reported an improvement in their overall hospital experience, and 80% even said they felt less pain. The same approach also proved successful with patients suffering from gastrointestinal, cardiac, neurological, and post-surgical pain, and has been used in recovery to keep patients focused and entertained during exercise.
VR can also allow family members to attend virtual medical appointments and see physical exams, diagnosis, and follow-up care remotely and in real-time. It’s also already being used to better the lives of senior citizens by reducing loneliness, ticking off locations on their bucket lists, and visiting places they used to live. Thanks to initiatives like AARP Innovation Labs’ VR app Alcove, the bridge of physical distance can be overcome by creating virtual meeting spaces where people can meet with their families and share a common virtual experience.
VR in Psychology
VR can also help people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) practice scenarios such as air travel, simulate sensory overload, and develop vocational skills. For example, a 2020 study by Gregory E. Kuper utilized video and VR to instruct people with ASD on how to wire an electrical socket, which increased self-efficacy, but also proved to be engaging and fun.
As a combination treatment, VR can also gradually introduce people to anxiety-provoking experiences. Using a headset allows for the exposure to be controlled and calibrated. For example, phobias can be explored while maintaining “safe” anxiety levels that don’t trigger episodes of distress (think of the fear of flying, crowded places, or vertigo-inducing buildings). And because VR consists mostly of visual input, participants can focus only on images without becoming overwhelmed by other sensory input.
With an estimated 90% of adults with ASD unemployed or underemployed, VR can help people overcome the barriers of integrating into an organization's culture by practicing common scenarios and making learning more enjoyable and less threatening.
VR in Schools
When it comes to learning, nothing beats active learning. One 2019 Harvard study shows that while college students assumed that they learned more in a lecture setting, they retained more information through a collaborative, hands-on environment.
In terms of general school performance, we’re used to passive learning in the classroom. However, the way we learn in a virtual environment is through interactions. One clear advantage is that VR breaks down geographical boundaries. Students can not only share a virtual classroom, but that classroom could potentially be set on Mars!
A Chinese study showed that 90% of students who learned Astrophysics in VR passed their tests, versus 40% for those who used traditional methods. This is particularly important for subjects like anatomy or cosmology, where interacting with 3D models is easier than working with 2D sketches. VR is also great for archaeology and history, as it could let students visit anything from a Pharaoh's tomb to the Great Fire of London.
VR in the Workplace
Another use associated with immersive virtual learning is professional training. VR is currently and actively used by companies like UPS, KFC, Airbus, Ford, and Siemens to introduce workers to tasks that are dangerous, expensive, or inconvenient to execute in real life. Airbus, an early adopter, installed VR immersion rooms at their various production sites to allow engineers to collaborate using 3D models of the aircraft. UPS also uses a mixed approach to teach candidates how to safely handle their vehicles, employ delivery information acquisition devices, and deliver packages.
VR can also be utilized for recruitment and screening, giving both the interviewer and the candidate the feeling of real-time and very close interpersonal interactions in a real-life environment. VR can improve collaboration and, more importantly, foster a sense of community closer to a traditional office setting that Skype and Zoom can’t yet fully recreate.
The Future of VR
VR, although developing rapidly, is still in its infancy. However, companies are developing lighter headsets, higher definition displays, and more powerful processors and fine-tuning issues like clipping and motion sickness.
The 2020 COVID-19 pandemic severely impacted the way we work and communicate with each other. It also showed us that virtual environments could be as productive as physical ones, and boosted the emergence of technologies that allow for new ways of interaction and collaboration.
We know that immersive virtual environments can evoke real physiological and emotional reactions. With the progressive addition of 5G and AI, as well as more devices and larger connected communities, VR is undoubtedly going to have effects across several industries and shape our future as a whole.
About the Author
Yisela Alvarez Trentini is an Anthropologist + User Experience / Human-Computer Interaction Designer with an interest in emerging technologies, social robotics, and VR/AR.