VR isn't hype or a mere novelty—there are real-world applications for the tech. This primer on virtual reality covers how businesses are using it, popular VR devices, and more.
Virtual reality (VR) is the next digital frontier, but it's not a new concept. Sci-fi literature has been creating virtual worlds since the 1950s with Ray Bradbury's The Veldt. In 1982, Tron was one of the first movies to showcase a digital world; films such as The Matrix trilogy, Inception, and Ready Player One have added to the public's acceptance and interest in VR. And while the technology only existed in fantasy worlds for many decades, it's now a solid concept that has a place for businesses and consumers.
Read on to find out why VR matters and what's coming next. (Also read Virtual reality for business: The smart person's guide, published on TechRepublic in March 2016 and written by Erin Carson.)
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What is virtual reality?
Virtual reality is a multisensory computer-generated experience that opens up virtual worlds for the user with complete immersion into a simulated world. VR is in the same ballpark as augmented reality (AR), in that it serves as a layer over the real world. Modern VR headsets provide haptics, motion, and location sensing and high-resolution 3D graphical displays that seem almost real.
On the TechRepublic sister site ZDNet, Greg Nichols writes: "According to the Virtual Reality Society, the technology has thematic roots in the stereoscopic viewers of the 19th century. Decades of research into immersive (albeit non-interactive) cinema gave way, in the 1960s, to early experiments in what were then called "artificial environments," primitive computer-generated worlds users could actually navigate."
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- Virtual reality 101: Your guide to VR (CNET)
Is VR a fad or here to stay?
Google, Facebook, and other major tech companies have invested heavily in VR technology; regardless, VR is not yet mainstream, and there is more work to be done before it reaches a breakthrough. A combination of bulky, awkward hardware, expensive headsets, and not enough interesting content all contribute to VR's slow trudge toward becoming a business and household essential.
VR is seeing growth, however. Spending on AR and VR products is expected to reach $27 billion this year, a 92% increase compared to 2017, according to the Worldwide Semiannual Augmented and Virtual Reality Spending Guide published by the International Data Corp (IDC). (AR and VR are often lumped together in such studies.) IDC reported spending on these technologies will achieve a five-year compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 72% during the 2017 to 2022 forecast period.
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What are popular virtual reality devices?
Virtual reality devices span the spectrum from inexpensive cardboard headsets to top-of-the-line gaming versions. Headsets are either standalone/mobile or tethered, and some work with a smartphone so no wires are connected to the headset. Here are some of the most popular VR headsets from big names such as Google, Oculus VR, Sony, and Lenovo.
HTC Vive: This tethered VR headset is ideal for PC gamers. It retails for $499.
HTC Vive Pro: This tethered headset is for PC gamers who want more features and are willing to spend more. It has a higher resolution than the HTC Vive, and it's priced at $799.
Oculus Rift: PC gamers love this headset. It's tethered, and it retails for $399. The Oculus Rift is manufactured by Oculus VR, which is owned by Facebook.
Oculus Go: This is the newest device from Oculus VR. It's affordably priced at $199, and it's a standalone headset that's ideal for VR newbies.
Oculus Quest: Facebook announced this VR headset, which is due out in the spring of 2019. The Oculus Quest will retail for $399. At the Oculus Connect conference, Mark Zuckerberg called this headset the "all-in-one VR experience we've all been waiting for."
Sony PlayStation VR: This tethered headset is for PS4 owners, and it retails for $199.
Google Cardboard: Google's whimsical cardboard headset is a low-cost way for users to experience VR using their smartphones. An SDK is available for Android and iOS. Prices are under $20 for most versions of Google Cardboard.
Lenovo Mirage Solo with Daydream: This is a standalone headset that can be used with a Daydream controller. It operates on an Android platform. It retails for $350.
It's important to note that many people have mistakenly called Microsoft's HoloLens (released in 2016) an example of virtual reality—HoloLens uses augmented reality (AR), not VR.
Mixed reality combines aspects of both VR and AR. The idea is that the user can see the real world (which is AR), but also see believable, virtual objects (which is VR).
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What are the main use cases of VR?
The consumer market is the biggest component of VR spending. IDC reported that through 2022, the consumer industry will be the biggest source of spending for AR and VR products at $53 billion, followed by retail, discrete manufacturing, and transportation with a collective $56 billion.
The dominant AR/VR use case in 2018 is VR gaming, with spending expected to reach $7 billion. Over the course of IDC's five-year forecast period, retail showcasing represents the use case with the largest growth rate. New use cases for 2018 include public infrastructure maintenance, as well as 360-degree educational video viewing.
The IDC report examines other use cases such as professional training, architectural design, augmented reality anatomy, automobile virtual test drives, logistics and package delivery management, real estate virtual property tours, remote surgery, retail store virtual fitting rooms, and VR grid control.
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- NASA shows the world its 20-year virtual reality experiment to train astronauts: The inside story (TechRepublic cover story)
What do developers need to know about virtual reality?
Demand for VR is leading to an increased need for skilled developers who can create apps for the enterprise.
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To learn a new programming language, developers have several options, whether taking a formal course or opting for a free or low-cost online course. Coding bootcamps are also an option. It's important for any developer to have a portfolio of work to show potential employers.
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What's next for virtual reality?
Smartphone VR usage will continue to grow, as more phones are compatible with the technology and lower-cost smartphone VR headsets, the IDC report said. However, standalone VR headsets are still expensive, and the price point is preventing mainstream adoption anytime soon.
When it comes to VR, new hardware on the market aimed at professionals like the HTC Vive Pro and the Oculus for Business bundle could be used for enhancing worker productivity and job training in fields like manufacturing and design, healthcare, transportation, and retail.
AR and VR are already seeing commercial growth, as more enterprises adopt the technologies. Both technologies prove useful for architecture, prototyping products, task itemization, and training for dangerous jobs; in fact, Walmart and UPS already started VR training initiatives.
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