Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality Isn't Just for Gaming Anymore

SPECIAL FEATURE: VR and its cousin, AR, are the natural extensions of televisions and PCs and represent a vast greenfield for IT companies.

Despite those big, awkward-looking pieces of headgear that users need to experience them, virtual reality and its cousin, augmented reality, are well into the preparation stage for mainstream usage during the next few years.

Where television, movies and personal computers have taken their users in years past, so will these new "realities" -- only in a much more dimensioned fashion. The term "immersive experience" is the most relevant here; where television and PCs present content on flat screens, VR places the user smack into the action, so to speak, and into virtual worlds seen by relatively few people up to now. That is, until the second half of the second decade of the 21st century, when the business is expected to become widespread and part of normal routine.

By the way, about those large, unsightly headdresses currently being used for VR: Don't worry, they'll be shrinking down over time to eventually become only a little larger than eyeglasses, we've been told. Perhaps we'll even see contact lens-like VR sets someday.

Defining VR and AR

For the record, VR is the computer-generated simulation of a three-dimensional image or environment that can be interacted with in a seemingly real or physical way by a person using special electronic equipment, such as a helmet with a screen inside or gloves fitted with sensors.

AR is the integration of digital images and/or information overlapped with the user's environment in real time. Unlike virtual reality, which creates a totally artificial environment, augmented reality uses the existing environment and overlays new information on top of it.

As one might imagine, companies in the gaming, retail and entertainment businesses will be the first commercial interests to take advantage of the allure of VR and AR in order to make some money. Off the top, progressive-thinking IT companies such as Facebook (with Oculus Rift VR, which began shipping this month), Samsung (with its Gear VR system) and Nokia (OZO), have taken early leads in this greenfield of new-gen IT.

Where can we expect these technologies to make their biggest impacts first: in entertainment, marketing, advertising or in the enterprise?

"There is no doubt that virtual reality is going to be huge, primarily in helping brands to engage their audiences in new ways," Jeff Melton, Senior Vice President of Global Technology and Platforms at MSLGROUP, told eWEEK. MSLGROUP is a network of marketing/public relations companies that is part of the French multinational Publicis Groupe.

Strategic Benefits Are Many

"Strategic benefits include deeper emotional connections as well as overall time spent. In a world where brands fight for attention, any method to grab an audience's attention for more than a few minutes will be of immense value. We feel that entertainment and gaming will be impacted first, as that's where the majority of the early adopters will be situated."

However, with the marketing industry is primed to be hugely impacted by VR within the next six months, AR will be coming a little further down the line -- likely reaching more maturity in two years' time, Melton said.

"In short, VR/AR will allow marketers and communicators to tell stories in a new way. With AR/VR, they don't need to be new stories, but rather the same stories told in a more immersive way that engages the consumer as never before," Melton said.

"Imagine a home buyer being able to tour 15 houses in a day, rather than go one by one, one weekend at a time. Or a surfer being able to 'test out' a new board before making the purchase. Marketing, advertising, and PR will be enabled as never before."

What other use cases might we see for AR/VR, with the sky seemingly the limit? [Go here to see an eWEEK slideshow by Mike Elgan on 10 top VR use cases.]

Skydive Without Getting into a Plane

"The sky truly is the limit for AR/VR. Imagine a 90 year-old being able to enjoy skydiving without the physical risk, or getting to drive in the Indy 500," Melton said. "Or a completely revamped shopping experience, where you buys things from home but feel as if you are actually at the store.

"With AR, you will be able to look at a product on the shelf and seeing augmented information about that product such as a rating or review."

An AR use case that's already at work in Amazon's warehouses is a system using SAP's enterprise resource planning software and Google Glass in which warehouse workers traverse large storage spaces, look at tall racks of pallets containing stored materials, and have the AR headset tell them in real time what's inside each carton or container. It's called "error-free identification."

Saves a lot of time and energy looking everything up on a manifest sheet.

Apartment hunters can use the same technology -- although with different software -- to look at available rentals from the street and get all the pertinent information flashed before them in the AR headset, such as availability, pricing and others.

(Photo courtesy of YouTube)

Chris Preimesberger

Chris J. Preimesberger

Chris J. Preimesberger is Editor-in-Chief of eWEEK and responsible for all the publication's coverage. In his 13 years and more than 4,000 articles at eWEEK, he has distinguished himself in reporting...