virtual reality headset

Future of VR may lie in spreadsheets, not gaming

Virtual reality (VR) headsets have long been associated with gaming, but consumer adoption has been slow in recent years. Commercial interest in the technology could be its saving grace.

Depending on who you ask, VR has been around in some form or another since the 1950’s, but only in the last few years has it matured enough to allow for the kind of immersive experience that has been anticipated since its inception.

The industry’s most notable headsets, the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, were both released in 2016 to much fanfare, although the actual number of units shifted has not lived up to their initial promise.

Meanwhile, Sony released a VR headset for the Playstation 4 which went on to sell a respectable two million units by the end of 2017. However, in comparison to the number of actual consoles sold (70m) this represents a relatively small proportion of the platform’s gamers that are interested in VR.

However, according to Gary Radburn, Dell’s head of VR, commercial interest in the technology has been skyrocketing, taking everyone by surprise.

“On the commercial side, people are absolutely seeing the advantages in production and travel time,” he said. “You can actually have collaboration in a meeting room.

“You have a virtual meeting with avatars in a room and can still talk about the presentation in front of you.”

In this context, VR allows employees to get together in a virtual space, bringing with it many of the benefits afforded from being in the same room, but without spending time and money travelling from one location to another.

“Corporates love it because they’ve suddenly reduced travel costs; people love it because you’re not taking them away from their families, you’ve actually got a real usage that isn’t just entertainment,” Radburn said.

VR gaming suffers from a number of issues, not least of all motion sickness caused by the in-game character traversing through the world while the real-world player themselves remains motionless, a similar effect that causes car sickness.

There are ways to mitigate this effect, such as reducing the player’s peripheral vision - an essential tool used by the human brain to determine movement - but the current implementation of this is currently far from perfect.

While the gaming industry is working hard at trying to overcome this limitation, in the commercial sector this is almost a non-issue. The amount of movement taking place in a virtual meeting, for example, is minimal at most and when it comes to data visualisation it is completely irrelevant.

The Texas-based DatavisVR has already developed a platform that lets users take information from a traditional 2D spreadsheet, like an Excel document, and bring it into 3D thanks to VR technology.

“You can interact with your data in different ways that you couldn’t do before,” Radburn said. “If we move into the third dimension inside of VR, we can actually look through data in 3D, we can see different trends and data being presented in different ways.

“For data visualisation it’s a more efficient way of using a spreadsheet. You can make connections and linkages a lot easier because we look in 3D anyway.”

He added that applications like Excel would have to “grow up” before such technologies are available natively on Microsoft’s platform.

“It’s actually harder for us to look at something in 2D and try and visualise it. If you’re looking at an elevation drawing of a building, you’ve got three pieces of paper, a top view, a side view and a front view.

“From those I can 3D visualise in my head what that building is going to look like, but that’s not efficient.

“If I can actually visualise that inside of VR and walk through that building, I can see what it would look like in day and night cycles, I can see lighting, shadowing, the whole works which I wouldn’t be able to see from standard drawings.

“It gives us far more flexibility in how we are going to interpret that data and how we’re going to use that data. We’ll get rid of those old 2D concepts.”

Many architects are already using VR software to let their clients walk around buildings that could be years away from actual construction. This allows designs to change and adapt according to exact specification without having to have a developed understanding of blueprints and construction plans.

Other sectors are also able to benefit from 3D exploration of unfamiliar locations. The marine and offshore sector, for example, is training its employees to find their way around an oil rig way before they’ve stepped foot on the platform itself.

These students are not only able to familiarise themselves with the complex structure and equipment used on the rig, but can also train themselves to perform important safety operations, simulating real-life scenarios in various weather conditions.

Ultimately, this means that new employees, or even veterans unfamiliar with a new rig, can arrive on day one with a superior knowledge of what to do in a disaster and make their way around the space with confidence.

Gary Radburn, Dell's head of VR

Locales such as this can be mocked up in plywood with the user’s headset tracked so that they can actually move around the space realistically, feeling the walls and handrails as they go, so that when they arrive on the rig itself everything has already been embedded into muscle memory.

The benefits that VR can bring to some companies are undeniable, but Radburn strongly refutes the assertion that the technology is already dead in the water when it comes to gaming and thinks that consumers will take to it eventually.

Part of the problem, he believes, lies with Google Cardboard, the search giant’s attempt to bring VR to the masses by developing a cheap housing for smartphones that allows them to be transformed into a poor man’s VR headset.

“Phones are a doubled-edged sword,” he said. “They are a great way for people to experience VR in the first place, but many consumers use it and have a crap experience and don’t want to go back to it.

“They’re then tainted and won’t necessarily want to invest in Playstation and PC VR if they haven’t had a good experience.”

Games running on Oculus Rift and HTC Vive headsets typically require a high-powered gaming PC to ensure a smooth experience that runs at a minimum of 90 frames per second. The generally accepted view is that lower framerates than this are prone to causing motion sickness in users.

Despite the leaps and bounds made in recent years in the smartphone sector, the devices still struggle to reach anywhere near the required frames per second while generating a visually appealing environment.

“Democratisation of the cost of entry is key,” Radburn believes. “We reached a point in the industry a few years ago where people wouldn’t create content because there was not a big enough market and people weren’t buying PCs to run VR because there wasn’t enough content to consume, so we reached this impasse.

“Now we’ve actually crossed that chasm,” he claims.

The relentless pace of ever-improving graphics cards and processors is seeing the cost of VR capable PCs dropping rapidly and eventually even smartphones may be able to reproduce an acceptable experience.

The real innovation in VR is still being driven by the gaming sector, Radburn said. They’re the ones “pushing the envelope and pushing the boundaries to show what can be done”. While many of the technical issues currently faced by VR are not as debilitating in a commercial environment, the future of the sector still lies with games.

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