The use of digital technologies in commercial applications is continually expanding. Improvements in virtual reality (VR) systems have increased the practical range of opportunities for their use across varied industries.
As discussed with respect to other technologies experiencing accelerated development and expansion, several definitions of “virtual reality” may be encountered. Researchers and practitioners may disagree on which applications qualify for use of the term. For our purposes, we will use a simple description of virtual reality:
“Virtual reality” is an experience created, using a digital twin or other model, where
The complexity and accuracy of VR experiences varies according to its intended purpose and state of development. The examples presented below cover a wide range of applications and, therefore, vastly different levels of sophistication.
Some of the most advanced virtual reality experiences can be found in the entertainment industry. Potentially huge audiences, and the resultant high returns, justify the investment in photorealistic rendering capabilities that provide more “authentic” virtual environments. High expectations of these audiences also require it.
An immersive adventure game is the quintessential example of virtual reality in entertainment. 3D movies represent a step toward virtuality, but lack the interactivity that defines a VR experience.
Real estate brokers may also use virtual reality to bolster sales. However, it is likely to be used only at the “high end” of the market. A virtual tour of a multimillion-dollar mansion may entice a foreign investor to act swiftly, but a family purchasing their first home is unlikely to do so without first visiting the neighborhood and reviewing the property. Also, the commission paid on the starter home will not justify the investment required to create the VR experience.
Products and services also can be demonstrated via virtual reality. This, too, however, is uncommon for the vast majority of goods and services in the marketplace. Commodity offerings simply cannot support the development of VR experiences, nor are they likely to be highly influential in purchasing decisions. Relying on retailers to effectively demonstrate products and educate consumers may also subject manufacturers to additional liabilities, further limiting its application.
Creating a scarcely-used VR experience is often cost-prohibitive, as in the real estate example above. One application for which it can provide great value, however, is process simulation. While the VR may only be used a small number of times to evaluate safety, ergonomics, and productivity, the process that it simulates will be performed many, many times. Some automotive manufacturers were early adopters of VR for evaluations of assembly lines to verify feasibility of tasks and reduce ergonomic and safety risks.
Other early adopters include high-risk processing facilities, such as chemical plants and nuclear power-generation facilities. In addition to process control and emergency response training, safety inspection training can also be facilitated by VR. Inspectors can learn to identify fault conditions without the added risk of accidents or exposure created by their presence within the processing facility.
There are several unconventional VR developments that demonstrate the broad range of application possible outside those we typically associate with the technology.
First responders can safely train for potential emergency scenarios or review past situations. Active-shooter drills can be conducted efficiently, as frequently as necessary, by eliminating the need to coordinate a large number of actors, secure a facility, etc. Eliminating the actors also eliminates the risk of sustaining real injuries during a simulated event.
Crime scene investigation can also be facilitated by digitizing the entire scene upon first entry. Doing so allows detectives to “return” to the scene, via VR, as often as necessary without travel. It may also allow more investigators to review the scene, minimizing overlooked clues. A VR experience will not contaminate a crime scene, but entry by investigators will.
Similarly, firefighters can be trained in methods used in explosive environments, for example, without creating an actual explosion risk. Arson investigations can be facilitated in similar fashion to other crime scene investigations. Also, a burned-out structure may not be sound; minimizing visits by investigators reduces risk of injury due to collapse or similar mishap.
Areas struck by natural disasters can benefit from VR in many of the same ways as crime scenes. Exploration via VR, to identify potential search and rescue sites, for example, reduces the risk of additional injury prior to commencing operations. News outlets can also use the digitized scene to report on the incident without the need to access potentially dangerous areas with additional personnel and equipment.
Advanced healthcare may be the most valuable application of VR to be developed. Applications have been developed to teach amputees to control phantom limb pain, reducing the need for medication and overall suffering. Mental health improvements are also being achieved with the help of VR-assisted cognitive behavioral therapy to treat phobias and social anxieties. The range of conditions that can be treated with the assistance of VR is expected to expand, further improving the quality of healthcare.
Virtual reality applications often focus on visual elements of the created environment. Other senses can also be stimulated, however, if the application warrants. Sounds can be easily added to the VR environment, while others require more sophisticated equipment and programming. For example, artificial skins are in development that enable simulation of bodily contact (i.e. pressure), vibration, heat, or other tactile feedback. Simulators used for entertainment or training purposes often add several actuators to an enclosed environment to simulate motions or accelerations such as gravity. If the motions and accelerations are not well-coordinated with the visual cues, however, intense motion sickness may result.
In the past, developers were capable only of operating in the real world with physical objects. Prototyping and physical testing were common, iterative activities in product development. Training was often conducted using passive techniques, such as written documents or video presentations. Risks of injury or other mishap were often identified during system construction and, many times, only after an injury or accident occurred.
With the advent of virtual reality, fewer prototypes and physical tests are needed to develop products. Training programs are much more interactive, increasing their effectiveness. Many injuries and other negative consequences are avoided by proactively mitigating or eliminating risks with the help of VR analyses.
The next step in the digital evolution is to combine the best of both worlds – the physical and the digital – to broaden the application and increase the value of digital tools in an array of industries. This next step is called “augmented reality” and will be explored in future installments of “The Third Degree.”
[See “Augmented Reality – Part 1: An Introduction to the Technology;” Part 2: “Manufacturing Industry Applications;” Part 3: “Applications in the Service Sector”]
Feel free to contact JayWink Solutions for further discussion of virtual reality and how it, or other digital tools, could benefit your organization.
[Link] “The Future of Virtual Reality (VR) in Manufacturing.” East West, April 12, 2016.
[Link] “Virtual reality comes of age in manufacturing.” ComputerWeekly, February 16, 2015.
[Link] “Virtual Reality for Workplace Safety in the Industrial & Manufacturing Industry.” Centric Digital, October 13, 2016.
[Link] “10 industries rushing to embrace virtual reality.” CNBC, December 1, 2016.
[Link] “9 industries using virtual reality.” TechRepublic, March 10, 2015.
[Link] “Artificial Skin Provides Haptic Feedback.” Tech Briefs, December 2019.
Jody W. Phelps, MSc, PMP®, MBA
JayWink Solutions, LLC
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