I’m dangling off the edge of an airborne helicopter, watching wildlife scatter as we pass over them in a flurry of sound and wind. I look back at the running wildebeests as we fly low and fast. I look up and see the helicopter rotor blades and wonder why I can’t feel a blast of air punishing me. Then I remember… I’m not really there.
The ability to transport yourself into alien, foreign or imagined environments has never been this close. Virtual reality is becoming (pardon the pun) a reality and opens up a massive opportunity for those willing to invest in this infant, but accelerating, category.
Virtual reality, in our definition, is the converging technology of both hardware and software elements to bring to life an out-of-body experience where you can explore an environment in an immersive and realistic setting. Trust me, once you’ve tried it with the current hardware available, you will walk away with your eyes wide open.
Just to give you an idea of where virtual reality has taken me, I’ve been on stage with Paul McCartney as he played in front of a huge crowd; next to a Nascar driver as he explains the tactics of slipstreaming and fuel conservation while fighting for position; underwater in a cage as it gets battered by excited sharks; come eye to eye with massive blue whales. I’ve even walked with protesters in Ferguson, listening to their pleas and arguments with police as I travel up the street with the crowd.
And of course there are the games I’ve played as well: flying through space avoiding asteroids and laser beams; run away from marauding monkeys as I try to escape with treasure from a temple; and using mind control to move objects around in my environment to help solve puzzles.
Virtual reality, or VR for short, seemed to have come and gone as a retro, almost cringe-inducing remnant of the trendy 80s. It wasn’t until Palmer Luckey, a young homeschooled enthusiast, began tinkering with screens, gyroscopes and PCs that VR found its resurgence, first through massive crowdfunding responses, all the way to this young inventor’s company, called Oculus, being acquired by Facebook for a multi-billion dollar sum. Suddenly VR was back on the map in a very real way.
Google gave out cardboard cutouts of an easy-to-make home built VR system that was as inexpensive as it was impressive in use. Google Cardboard, the app that supports the cheap, DIY-style VR headset, has passed over 1 million downloads.
The product with the biggest mainstream fanfare so far has been Samsung’s Gear VR, which is a headset that utilises the latest Galaxy smartphones and uses its own sensors to ensure a faster response to your head turns, making it feel as close as possible to being in the space you can see around you. Oculus had a major hand in developing the Gear VR, and those who have tried it are always left with their jaw centimeters from the ground.
One aspect of the VR experience that had always left me a little hollow is the singular point of view it provided – you couldn’t share your moment on another world with anyone else. But even this is changing now with companies like AltspaceVR providing platforms and environments where you can hang out with other virtual friends from anywhere in the world and watch Youtube videos, play games, or use a web browser.
It’s clear that VR is progressing at a frantic pace and there will come a time when even small businesses may need to address their presence in the virtual world, just as it’s obligatory to have a social media and online strategy now. But what exactly could these opportunities be?
Some are immediately obvious. For example you might provide a virtual walkthrough of a house for sale, while being able to look at the property as if you are actually standing inside it and get a feeling for the size and possibilities of each room.
Some entrepreneurs have already started selling meditation apps, which are essentially a full 360 degree immersive scene of a calm meadow cliff overlooking a glorious harbour and beach with matching soothing audio. I’ve tried it and it’s a very good way of grabbing some calm-centering moments away from the complete hustle and bustle of everyday life – even more so for a small business owner.
One app that impressed me on a commercial level was Matterport. This app allows you to move through environments using just your eyeline and a side tapping gesture on the Gear VR. One such VR environment which is striking for its potential to businesses is a clean, sparsely designed retail shop, where you can walk around the retail floorspace, move up close to examine goods on shelves and even read information on products.
You can easily imagine a vast virtual shopping mall made of these walk through environments. You don’t need to “walk” to each one, just appear in the desired store from wherever you are. Will it still be a ghost town, bereft of other virtual visitors? Could there be an interaction with a virtual salesperson or even a real one who is like you, sitting on a couch but virtually existing in this digital platform?
Aside from this, savvy marketers and software developers could work together to make compelling content for the VR platform. Full 360 degree cameras are becoming more affordable and scaled platforms like Youtube are already prepared for VR content delivery. Whether it’s education oriented, bringing historical events to life, travelling through the solar system, or entertaining through gameplay and filmmaker content, there are a million Google Cardboards out there waiting for the killer app. And it’s virtually yours for the taking.
(Note: This article first appeared in My Business magazine in 2015, and has been updated to take into account the latest releases of hardware and VR apps).