Charlie Tuxworth: It's time for us to ask whether virtual reality can help us in the workplace
Ready Player One, a book published in 2011 and made into a movie this year, is a view of a dystopian world where Virtual Reality (VR) is so compelling it has taken over from real life.
The characters live, work and play in an alternative reality in a VR environment called the Oasis, providing an idealistic existence that even has its own education system and currency. Yet in the here and now, VR has yet to prove itself.
VR's sibling, Augmented Reality (AR), which provides images or information to enhance our perception of the real world, has enjoyed more success and could well help to spur VR adoption.
AR lends itself to numerous real world applications, such as allowing engineers to overlay schematics while repairing machines. Firefighters are now using it alongside thermal imaging to 'see' doors and stairs in smoke-filled buildings, allowing them to move up to five times faster.
As a technology, VR has largely been consigned to entertainment (games rooms and cafes), museums (interactive displays) and marketing (allowing customers to experience the look and feel of products), making it difficult to see its potential as an enterprise tool. Some business sectors have experimented with it, with estate agents allowing prospective buyers to view properties from the comfort of their own home, and designers using it to walk around their Google Tilt Brush creations, but it has yet to make significant headway.
To unlock the potential of VR in the enterprise, perhaps we should step away from its entertainment roots and, in the best traditions of innovation, look at the challenge from a different perspective.
Some interesting research led by Dr Nigel Newbutt at UWE Bristol has shown how VR, when used in the learning environment, can assist children on the autistic spectrum who struggle with sensory overload.
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VR provides a controlled learning environment in which the child can experience and adapt to social situations at their own pace enabling them to learn to deal with situations under controlled conditions, reducing their stress and anxiety.
It's this immersive experience that could pave the way for some interesting applications. VR could provide the ultimate training tool, transporting the user to any location or environment, exposing staff to the demands of a job when at an interview or when learning new skills.
High risk scenarios that would have been impossible to re-enact in real life, such as those associated with Health and Safety training, can be simulated. Staff can explore hazards and scenarios, learning how to react when faced with an accident in a factory, laboratory or at sea on a ship or oil rig.
Microsoft is investing heavily in VR in the enterprise space to enhance collaboration and cooperation between different office locations and the increasing number of remote workers. Last October it released the Windows Mixed Reality (WMR) platform which integrates with Microsoft Office software, allowing the user to operate their PC from within the VR environment.
While AR simply overlays visual data, Mixed Reality (MR) brings together the real and the virtual so that real and virtual objects exist in the same plane and can interact with one another.
WMR has seen a number of hardware providers enter the fray, with Acer, Asus, HP, HTC and Lenovo all launching enterprise VR headsets.
This has bolstered confidence in leading analysts such as IDC to predict that VR use in the enterprise will grow exponentially, with market growth averaging 52.5% annually over the next five years.
AR, VR and MR - or XR as it's now being called - is still a nascent technology.
But much like the mobile phone, it has the potential to unshackle us from our screens and our workspaces and the power to enhance our reality in ways we could only imagine before.
- Charlie Tuxworth is Director of Software & Innovation at Equiniti. As a digital solutions provider, Equiniti helps public and private sector organisations future-proof their solutions. For further information and advice, visit equiniti-technology.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org