Emerging Tech

Oculus Rift and Facebook: Here's the business angle

Virtual reality has been just a few years away for decades; but could it really break through this time?

Last month, when discussing his acquisition of virtual reality headset maker Oculus, Facebook's CEO Mark Zuckerberg described a future filled with goggle-powered consultations with doctors, virtual shopping and - thanks to the headset - getting the best view at a sporting event from the comfort of your own sofa.

Oculus is still mostly focused on gaming, but Zuckerberg clearly had bigger ambitions - saying Oculus was building what could be "the next major computing platform" after the PC, web and mobile.

Except of course that virtual reality is up there with the paperless office and the cashless society as something that is just a few years away; and has been for decades. So why should it break through this time?

Brian Blau, research director at analyst Gartner said CIOs in certain industries should have an eye on VR and other immersive computer graphics technologies - for example in companies that would benefit from having their employees or customers put into an immersive graphical environment. As well as video gaming companies this might include ones involved with military simulation or training technologies, or design and fabrication or where visualization is key to the business process.

"For some of these applications it's augmented reality (AR) that would be better suited, but virtual reality can have benefits even if those are in their early stages of development," he said.

He added: "I don't think that this is yet another hyped period for VR, but it's really the start of what I would consider a renaissance that will eventually lead to VR and AR being an a real force in technology and business, but it could take up to five or more years before we get to that point," he said.

As such, building a business case for such projects is a long way down the line for most tech chiefs still trying to figure out mobile and cloud.

And while the majority of CIOs spoken to by TechRepublic were underwhelmed by the claim that virtual reality would be the next big thing, some can see the potential of the nascent technology although many barriers remain to be overcome.

On whether virtual reality could be the next major computing platform Matthew Oakley, group head of IT at Schroders said: "One day, yes - but not the next big thing."

A number of CIOs said more still needed to be done in terms of the size and weight of such devices. Gavin Megnauth, group CIO at Impellam said there needs to be a couple more iteration of the technology yet for it fully to mature but said "this could ultimately be an immersive solution - initially in the consumer space (gaming, etc) but I can see many commercial uses for it also."

There's no real surprise that tech chiefs remain cautious - lots of companies piled into the last next big thing in virtual worlds; Second Life, and their experience of that may temper their excitement this time around.

They built at best quirky and at worst extremely dull corporate outposts in there, which then rapidly became ghost towns. Indeed this enthusiastic corporate invasion may well have been one of the reasons that Second Life never really caught on beyond the initial excitement. Buying shoes in the real world is boring enough - why would anyone want to go into a fantasy world to do it too?

The option of a visually immersive virtual reality platform is an intriguing one, and it's not the only new user interface option out there - take Microsoft's Kinect motion-sensor, which offers another novel way of interacting with computers.

Still, not everyone is put off by the idea of smart goggles, which could over time evolve into something more like Google's Glass headset: John Gracyalny, VP for IT at SafeAmerica Credit Union, said: "I am not enamoured of smart phones (neat mini-computers, terrible phones), but have been waiting all my life for smart glasses (I've worn glasses since second grade, and hate contacts). It will be nice to finally be considered 'cool'."

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About

Steve Ranger is the UK editor of TechRepublic, and has been writing about the impact of technology on people, business and culture for more than a decade. Before joining TechRepublic he was the editor of silicon.com.

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