Virtual Reality Inching Closer to Delivering Value to Enterprises

Companies such as Ford are seeing its investment in virtual reality payoff, but the automaker has been developing the technology for 30 years. Some say a killer app is needed to ignite the market.

VR Holiday Plans

SAN FRANCISCO—Some of virtual reality's biggest boosters shared words of caution at the recent VRX Conference and Expo here on Dec. 7-8.

“We don’t want to mad rush this technology and say it solves everything,” said Frank Soqui,general manager of virtual reality and gaming at Intel. During a panel discussion on enterprise use cases for VR, Soqui pointed out some of the VR's limitations in terms of its ability to convey real world interactions.

“Looking at me is a sense of presence," Soqui said. If your eyes aren’t able to make eye contact with the other person in a virtual space, you’ve lost a sense of presence, he said.

The more you engage a little bit of every sense, the more it seems real, he said, noting that sense of presence is helped by technology that some VR systems use, such as 360 degree audio and haptics, which deliver a sensation of touch.

VR may never be a perfect mimic of reality, but it may not need to be, said John Buzzell, president of YOU ARE HERE, an immersive experience lab that helps companies engage with customers. “Our brains are highly adaptable and want to believe,” said Buzzell.

But getting a realistic experience is less important than the problems VR is supposed to be helping enterprises solve.

“We see a lot of R&D growth on the enterprise side. Many companies are looking for solutions to challenges they haven’t been able to solve,” said Stephanie Llamas, the head of Immersive Technology Insights at SuperData Research. However, Llamas notes that "a lot of enterprises haven’t thought about it (VR).”

Surveys of enterprise users by SuperData Research put training and simulation among the top areas of interest when it comes to deploying VR. “We consider training part of marketing and sales,” said Llamas. As for simulation, retailers, realtors and other vendors have long offered virtual tours of goods and property.

On the training side, niche solutions abound. For example, a company called Interplay Learning has developed a “VR-in-a-Box” application that helps train solar and HVAC workers how to operate and repair the equipment. To keep costs more manageable and encourage trials, the company offers a lease program for as little as $125 per month.

“It’s like going on a field trip where you can explore and learn as you go,” company CEO Doug Donovan told eWEEK.

Industry analyst Tim Bajarin told eWEEK that VR (as well as the related augmented and mixed reality technologies) has found its most success in niche areas. While headgear is typically required, Bajarin said one of the most impressive VR demos he’s seen simulates a heart surgery procedure in 3D by a company called zSpace.

In a later session, Elizabeth Baron, a VR and Advanced Visualization Tech Specialist at Ford, gave an overview of how the automaker VR efforts have evolved over the past thirty years. In the early days, the technology simply wasn’t good enough to let the company virtually display some of the finer details of its cars, Baron said.

But more recent advances let its researchers see precise representations of both the exterior and interior of cars, including all the engine parts. Researchers can interact with these models in real time to perform a wide range of tests from usability to material tolerances. It can even simulate how long the window takes to defrost, she said.

“We need (the VR model) to be accurate so you are feeling like you are in the vehicle,” and the VR simulation has to be responsive, she said.

For Ford, VR is an immersive social experience. As one user wearing a VR headset interacts with a vehicle, other researchers can see what she sees on their own screens.  “We can get a globally distributed team working together and get everyone’s collaboration,” said Baron. “You might be in Palo Alto, Dearborn, Michigan or Melbourne, Australia.”

As interest and development of VR increases the question of how mainstream it will become remains. “In medicine we don’t like to use the terms killer app,” joked panelist Walter Greenleaf, a neuroscientist at Stanford University who has worked with VR technology for decades. “But that’s something that will help this industry take off.”

Greenleaf said there are plenty of opportunities in the medical field alone. “In medicine there are some things we can’t address without VR,” he said

David Needle

David Needle

Based in Silicon Valley, veteran technology reporter David Needle covers mobile, bi g data, and social media among other topics. He was formerly News Editor at Infoworld, Editor of Computer Currents...