Medical device companies, for example, are among the early adopters, says Jeremy Duimstra, a professor of user experience at University of California San Diego and CEO and creative director at San Diego-based MJD Interactive, which counts Disney, Red Bull, P&G and Titleist among its clients.
"Being able to virtually interact with a device in the design phase, without having to build physical objects ... allows for more innovation," he says.
Plus, there's the cost savings of materials and manpower of physically mocking up hundreds of prototypes. "Build the product virtually, test it, iterate, and only build when you know it's right," he says.
Environments that are physically dangerous for people are also ripe for going virtual.
"Our oil and gas clients are definitely interested in this space," says Mary Hamilton, who heads up the digital experiences research and development group at Accenture. Immersive virtual reality allows people who might be in different locations to visit a difficult-to-reach facility, to get views such as X-rays or schematic views that might be impossible in real life, and enables low-risk, lower-cost training for new employees.
Marketing applications are also expanding, she says.
For example, low-cost head-mounted displays will allow retailers to replace their immersive CAVE environments which can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to set up. Companies can use the technology to have focus groups walk through virtual stores, interact with different shelf layouts, or even try out new products.
"It would significantly lower costs, allow companies to do more of this, and allow them to do it in multiple locations," she says.
The second wave
One virtual reality wave has already come and gone, in the 1990s. Movies like "The Lawnmower Man," devices like Nintendo's Virtual Boy and virtual reality arcades made the technology hot, but by the time "The Matrix" came out at the end of the decade it was clear that virtual reality technology was too expensive and too bulky for widespread use. In addition, graphics quality was poor and high latency and poor head-tracking combined to make users nauseous.
As a result, virtual reality became limited to high-end, narrowly focused applications such as military simulations, movie special effects, and training and simulations in manufacturing, oil, and the medical industries, says Jacquelyn Ford Morie, formerly a virtual reality expert at the University of Southern California's Institute for Creative Technologies. Virtual reality immersion therapy has been used for a decade now to treat Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and to manage the pain of burn victims.
"Now we have this second wave of virtual reality," says Morie. "The difference between then and now is that it's affordable. Instead of a $30,000 head-mounted display, you now have a $300 head-mounted display."
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