With Virtual Reality’s increasing time in the spotlight, most people probably have some surface-level understanding of what it is. However, different types of VR experiences and how they are being used in business, education, and entertainment are unclear for many. While many people still view VR as a technology of the future, it is already being used successfully across industries.
What Is VR?
Virtual reality is a computer display technology that places the user within a completely digital world. That world can be something that has never existed in physical space or something that could never exist in physical space. This approach is common in video games and some social and cultural use cases, but it isn’t the only approach.
Less imaginative virtual worlds are often used for remote work, education, or social use cases that give participants an immersive way to access an experience without being overwhelmed by complicated controls. “Digital Twins” – exact virtual replicas of physical spaces – are also used for workplace training, tourism, architecture, engineering, and construction, and other uses.
By combining a real location with VR artistry, a physical place can be reimagined throughout its history – or its future. This approach is common in gaming, entertainment, and design planning. Students can visit a virtual version of Imperial Rome. Gamers can play adventures set in historic time periods or visions of the future. Designers can envision site construction or renovation.
A Brief History of Virtual Reality
Head-worn VR goes back to the late 1960s, but the “modern era” starts with the Oculus DK1 in 2013. The device was large, expensive, and had limited use cases but won big with developers, researchers, and yes, some early adopters.
Later that year, the Oculus Rift came out to become one of the first accessible Virtual Reality headsets. Two years later, Facebook (now Meta) purchased Oculus.
In another two years, HTC released VIVE, with VIVE later to become its VR division with all headsets bearing the name. That same year, Sony launched the original PlayStation VR 1, Varjo was founded( though its VR 1 wouldn’t come out until 2019), and, Pico released “Goblin” – the first stand-alone VR headset.
Products have been discontinued, names have changed, other companies have come and gone, and other companies are out there with their own products. But this is the basic timeline.
Do I Need a Headset?
A virtual reality headset is required for the greatest sense of immersion in a Virtual Reality experience and some experiences only exist within VR headsets. However, a number of VR experiences also work on desktop or even on mobile devices. Some users find these devices more comfortable as well as more accessible than dedicated VR headsets.
If you do decide on using a headset for full immersion, you should know that there are a large variety of Virtual Reality headsets currently on the market. Different headsets offer different abilities and limitations, and come in at different price points.
Tethered VR Headsets
Tethered VR headsets are wired to either a powerful PC or a game console. These headsets are capable of more robust experiences, but also cost more money, require expensive computers, and might be unsuitable for some applications because of the wired connection.
The headset serves as a display as well as a tracker of the head, hands and controllers, and in some cases where a user is looking. Because most of the heavy computational lifting is done on the connected console, these headsets are able to offer more full-featured experiences and better graphics.
The best example in gaming is currently Sony’s PlayStation VR 2. Gamers with this system have graphics nearly unparalleled in the consumer space, as well as advanced software like eye tracking. However, the headset costs $40 more than the only gaming console with which it is compatible – the PlayStation 5, which costs over $500.
One of the best examples in industry is the HTC VIVE Pro 2. VIVE is known for their unparalleled tracking options, and comprehensive headset design including impressive onboard audio hardware. However, the $800 headset relies on a whole network of additional hardware including a highly-capable computer, external tracking units, and an optional wireless adapter.
Stand-Alone VR Headsets
Stand-alone VR headsets are designed to work completely on their own, although most can plug into a computer to access more content. These devices tend to be more affordable and easier to set up, wear, use, and ship. However, experiences for these devices are often less fully featured and less graphically impressive.
Because the device serves as the display as well as the computer, these headsets are more likely to have inhibitive memory limitations and shorter battery life. Most stand-alone headsets come in special editions with expanded memory and are compatible with adapters like external battery packs. However, they still don’t stand up to tethered headsets for some uses.
The Meta Quest 2, starting at $400, is currently the headset to have for lightweight VR gaming and many social and remote work applications. While the headset does have limited memory and graphics capabilities, it’s more than enough for remote collaboration at work and it has a growing ecosystem of accessible games and fitness applications as well as productivity apps.
Almost all modern headsets operate in six degrees of freedom (6DoF). Older headsets had more limited sensors that didn’t support modern controllers or tracking inputs and offered only “3DoF” – a user can look around within a 3D virtual environment but can’t move freely within it.
These headsets have waned in popularity as the ability to offer more complex VR experiences has expanded. However, these headsets were sufficient for some use cases including viewing 3D images and videos. Further, they are less expensive and easier to use. As a result, they have held on in some enterprise and entertainment settings.
As of this writing, the most recent 3DoF headset is the Pico G2 4K. However, Pico recently announced an upcoming third generation of their 3DoF enterprise offering demonstrating the continued utility of this often overlooked model.
Some headsets come with even more sensors for use in assessment, diagnostics or academia, or are specifically calibrated for certain specialist applications. Finnish manufacturer Varjo is probably the leader in both categories.
The $7,100 Varjo XR-3 Focal Edition is a modified version of one of the company’s existing enterprise headsets with an adjusted focal plane to optimize for near-to user interactions. The headset is specifically designed for simulation use cases including flight training.
The $25,000 Galea combines the Varjo Aero headset with neurological sensors developed by OpenBCI. The VR headset will be capable of measuring a wearer’s gaze, heart rate, skin response, brain activity, and more. The headset should be in the hands of early-access groups this summer for use in human studies and advanced software computer development.
VR Controllers and Adapters
In addition to specialized headsets, specialized controllers can increase the sense of immersion in a VR experience for entertainment, simulations, or athletic training.
Gamers and law enforcement or defense personnel have access to attachments that turn the controllers into a reliably tracked simulation gun. Casual gamers or professional athletes working on their form can turn their controllers into golf clubs or pickleball paddles. Surgeons can use replicas of medical instruments to realistically practice complex procedures.
Virtual Reality Industries and Use Cases
Some use cases of virtual reality like training, onboarding, and remote collaboration, could benefit literally any industry. However, there are some industries that have particularly adopted VR and that VR is particularly well suited for.
AEC and Design
During a previous technological shift, the Architecture, Engineering, and Construction (AEC) industry showed us how useful 2D computer visualization could be with their massive adoption of Computer Assisted Design (CAD). With the power of virtual reality, these files take on a whole new dimension. Automotive and product design follows a similar pattern.
Entire models can be designed in VR (or an existing CAD model can be turned into a virtual environment). This makes it easier than ever for designers to get a feeling of what a building, vehicle, or product could be before so much as 3D printing a mockup.
One company, Treble Technologies, even uses 3D models to replicate the acoustics of a space. Through this technology, designers don’t just know what a building will look like before it’s built, they know what it will sound like.
Physical fashion designers can benefit from VR in all of the ways that other kinds of designers can – through remote collaboration and immersive modeling. Enterprising companies are also using extended reality technologies to show fashions to retailers and wearers without the cost of physical fashion shows.
However, with virtual spaces and virtual representations of users comes the need for virtual fashions. Some fashion companies, like House of Blueberry exist solely in VR and create exclusively digital fashions – even teaming up with physical fashion brands to do it.
Food, Beverage, and CPG
Most common food, beverage, and consumer packaged goods (CPG) XR activations happen in AR on the mobile phone because mobile phones are much more widely used than VR headsets (for now). However, a growing number of these experiences are increasingly immersive worlds, like CocaCola’s recent Dreamworld activation, or a more recent activation that created a personalized “metaversion” avatar from a series of interactive prompts.
With the emergence of virtual real estate, a growing number of retail companies are establishing presences in virtual worlds. While these may or may not sell physical goods, they are a good way of spreading brand representation to an emerging medium in a potentially impactful way.
Companies don’t necessarily need to buy virtual land either. Emperia works with companies to create virtual showrooms that integrate with a retailer’s existing online presence and online payment strategies.
Future of the Industry
VR software is continuing its history of becoming more user-friendly and more visually impressive, while the hardware becomes smaller and more affordable. As big names like Sony and Meta increasingly produce better content on more accessible devices, adoption is continuing to grow.
Meanwhile, advancements in how content is created for immersive worlds on consoles, apps, and the web make it easier than ever for new and aspiring developers to leave their mark on the virtual world.
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