In increasingly technologically sophisticated workspaces, it’s not unusual to see AI based tools and various new iterations of older tech. But what about virtual reality (VR)? Can technologies such as VR and augmented reality (AR) really make the workplace more productive, and does it have a place in training and education?
What is virtual reality?
VR is an environment entirely generated by a computer that can be experienced through a headset. The user will experience this generated reality as real, with objects and surroundings appearing ultra-realistic. This leads to a totally immersive, 360-degree experience.
Unlike AR, which overlays generated imagery on to the real-world surroundings, VR can only be experienced fully if the user’s visual and auditory senses are blocked off from the real world. This is why VR headsets tend to cover eyes and ears and are usually some forms of helmet.
VR has been hovering on the fringes of video gaming for many years. In fact, one of the first VR devices was invented way back in the 1950s, in the form of the ‘Sensorama’. This involved a machine with a built-in seat that used smells, visuals and sounds to make the movie being played feel as real as possible.
Technology has come a long way since then and today VR allows gamers to be fully immersed within the gaming world. It has lots of other use cases too, from medical and surgical training to military usage and virtual meetings.
How does VR work?
The simulated experience given by VR uses 3D near eye displays and pose tracking to immerse the person into the world. While most VR systems need a headset as described earlier, it is possible to set up projected environments that use realistic sounds, images to simulate the VR world using several large screens.
The term ‘virtual reality; was coined in the late 1980s by Jaron Lanier who headed a company called VPL Research. This firm was responsible for some of the first VR hardware and for the VR used in the 1992 movie Lawnmower Man.
Atari founded its own virtual reality lab in 1982 but succumbed to the video game crash of 1983 and closed just two years later. The first VR implementation on a relatively low-cost personal computer came from Autodesk with its Cyberspace Project in 1988.
Affordable VR became even more of a realistic vision in the 1990s with Sega releasing a VR headset for the Mega Drive and various other projects ongoing by all kinds of companies. For example, NASA scientist Antonia Medina designed a VR system specifically to control Mars rovers directly from earth in real (earth) time, despite the delay that the signals between planets cause.
Oculus Rift and beyond
Despite all of this technological R&D, the general public remained largely untouched by virtual reality until 2010 when the first prototype of the Oculus Rift was released. At the time, it offered the most sophisticated 90 degree field of vision to the user. Two years later, the Rift was formally presented at E3, and Facebook acquired it by 2014 for a purpose $2 billion.
In 2014, Sony joined the fray with Project Morpheus, which became the PlayStation VR headset for PlayStation 4. By 2016, around 230 businesses were busy designing VR products, ranging from Samsung, Microsoft and Sony to Apple and Facebook as well as many much smaller innovative tech companies.
Development of soft skills using VR
In 2021, the very first VR flight simulation training device was approved by the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA). It’s designed for rotorcraft pilots and allows training for risky manoeuvres in a safe, virtual environment.
Switching to training for the corporate sector, virtual reality also has many potential use cases. Now that much of the corporate world has adapted to flexible and remote working practices due to COVID-19, VR can provide innovative ways to train the workforce.
VR training offers a fully immersive learning experience that can simulate real life environments and work challenges. This means employees can get real life training in a risk-free environment. In other words, they can learn ‘on the job’, without impacting real projects or risking any mistakes.
A report from PWC shows that employees using VR training complete their learning programme four times faster than other forms of training. It also shows that they are significantly more connected emotionally with the training course content than they are in traditional classroom settings or via standard e-learning.
There is also the obvious advantage of virtual reality being able to replicate dangerous work environments and allowing people to come up against challenging situations without risking any danger or compromising anyone’s safety.
Product development and VR
A growing trend that moves away from consumer applications of virtual reality lies in the impact it’s having on the design process and product development. VR (and AR) are changing the products themselves, but also the speed of design, development, and manufacture.
Getting rid of traditional product prototypes in favour of virtual reality designs and interfaces shifts agile development up the ladder by several steps. VR allows for multiple simultaneous iterations, which can be tested and developed quickly. This has obvious benefits over a design process hat depends on the creation of a number of actual prototypes.
AR can be used to enhance he collaborative process as well the design and development stages. Having the ability to visualise products far earlier than the traditional design process saves time, money and streamlines the entire project. Teams of designers can very quickly visualise any number of options without ever having to create a physical prototype.
This allows ideas and concepts to be improved upon over and over in a much faster timeframe than traditional design and manufacture processes. Of course, a form of digital prototyping has been available for a while, but only in 2D, which effectively disconnects them from the real-world environment that they will be used in.
VR allows designs to be slotted into the actual environment so that designers and engineers can continue to refine and experiment at actual size. The contextual iterations allow for speedy improvements and next-level design and performance.