The Business of Virtual Reality

Virtual Worlds, Real Money

With all the hype surrounding virtual reality headsets, people often struggle to look beyond obvious applications in the home such as gaming. But another potentially far bigger opportunity is emerging for the use of this technology in businesses.

A smart way to untangle the potential of any new technology is to follow the money. Facebook’s two-billion dollar acquisition of Oculus VR was clearly motivated by far more than just making first-person shooter games a little bit better. Facebook’s vision is to revolutionise social media time lines, turning them from linear Web pages to fully immersive experiences through the power of virtual reality. There’s already healthy growth in 360-degree material such as the trailer for the latest Star Wars film and footage of the US Blue Arrows aerial display team. The business angle is that this makes Facebook a more engaging place, and therefore more attractive to advertisers.

Another business sector that could be transformed by virtual reality is the travel industry. Virtual reality headsets will let travel companies transport consumers into an immersive preview of several destinations, whetting their appetite for a particular holiday or experience.

Don’t be surprised if this technology starts being used by travel agents as a tool to get people to upgrade their holiday package. A quick preview of the different grades of hotel room on offer, with an opportunity to look through a virtual window and decide whether you want to pay the extra for a sea view — rather than the notorious “garden view” of a car park — will be a smart way to upsell a holiday at the time of booking. Similarly, Virgin Atlantic is already trialling virtual reality to demonstrate the in-flight experience in its business-class cabin in an effort to get corporate travellers to upgrade.

Architecture is another sector that is poised to benefit from this new technology. People often struggle to visualise what a new building will look like when presented with typical paper-based architectural plans. It’s the reason why model-makers are often employed to create a more tangible representation of how a building will actually look. With virtual reality, it’s not a huge step to go from computer-generated renders of a design to a life-like virtual model of the exterior and the interior of a new development merely by slipping on a relatively inexpensive headset.

A final example is the car industry. Microsoft is working with Volvo to develop uses for its HoloLens technology, and Samsung has been working with numerous carmakers including BMW and Fiat. Some of Samsung’s work has already achieved notable success: in Italy, Fiat staged events in major cities and shopping centres. Prospective customers could use virtual reality headsets to check out Fiat cars. In just one weekend 72,000 people donned the headsets to learn more about the latest models. This generated 41,000 qualified leads and 1,300 actual test-drives.

All these examples provide clear evidence that virtual reality is poised to reach beyond gimmicky applications for consumers. With CCS Insight forecasting that 2.5 million virtual and augmented reality devices will be sold in 2015, rising to over 24 million device sales in 2018, it’s a technology that businesses can no longer afford to ignore.

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