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Game over: Virtual reality hits the real world

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 Guest post by Arthur Cole

Virtual reality has entered its second coming in a big way, and this new wave is advancing far beyond the early-'90s video game era. Long considered the Holy Grail of gaming, it's emerging as a bona fide business and productivity tool, with the potential to reinvent our relationship with data by making it something we experience rather than something we observe.

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Mobile is poised to embrace the technology in a big way, if the latest market research is any indication. According to SuperData Research, the mobile market is set to top $861 million this year, which is quite a jump, considering it barely existed less than two years ago. But with the launch of devices like Oculus Rift and Google Cardboard, the industry is quickly drawing a broad spectrum of early adopters and software developers. By 2020, says Goldman Sachs, we could be looking at a $110 billion industry.

Not just fun and games

What can this technology accomplish, other than allow us to walk through the deserts of a Star Wars planet or fire shoulder-mounted rockets at incoming drones? Plenty, it turns out: not only can it do wonders for business, medicine, and a host of other disciplines—it is already contributing to science and our understanding of the world. Researchers from Queensland University of Technology, Australia, recently trekked deep into the Amazonian rain forest with an assortment of GoPro cameras to study endangered jaguars. Using captured hi-def imagery and advanced statistical modeling, the team was able to create an immersive environment that allowed conservationists around the world to plot food sources, breeding grounds, and, most importantly, the corridors through which animals can access additional territory.

Elsewhere, the technology is helping to solve some of the most challenging problems of the day. At the University of Southern California, psychology professor Skip Rizzo is using virtual reality to help war veterans overcome the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Others are using it to treat everything from phobias to phantom limb syndrome, a condition in which patients experience pain and other symptoms from amputated limbs. By allowing sufferers to relive traumatic experiences in a controlled environment, Rizzo can help them process events in ways not possible when it was happening live. "Essentially, it helps the patient repeatedly confront and process very difficult emotional memories, while they narrate the scene they experienced in real life," he told The Telegraph.

Meanwhile, The Telegraph reports, journalists are using virtual reality for immersive journalism experiences, putting themselves front and center at the world's most active news sites, all without leaving the safety of the newsroom. Using Google's Cardboard, reporters from BBC and ABC have experienced a bombed marketplace in Syria and a military march in Pyongyang, North Korea. To enable the virtual experience, live images are captured on site and then transmitted to a safe location. These immersive experiences give journalists access to otherwise inaccessible events, and transport viewers to places they may otherwise never experience. According to The Telegraph, they also have the potential to create empathy among viewers for people suffering in faraway parts of the world.

As for the business world, according to an article by Deloitte University Press (1), virtual reality can be used in an industry like manufacturing for training, with simulated environments removing workers from dangerous analogs. VR can help engineers collaborate in real time, allow marketing managers to view sales data and retail inventory from great distances, and change the way IT reports information. Even executives can use it for presentation rehearsals and design decisions.

A new virtual reality

It isn't hard to see how these new immersive capabilities could potentially alter everyday life as we know it, from a baseball game seen through the eyes of a hitter or pitcher to a virtual meeting where participants can move and socialize as if it were a live conference. Even the management of data networks could cross into an entirely new arena, with technicians strapping on a headset and virtually walking into complex network architectures to move and reorient resources as if they were stacking blocks or building a house. Enterprises will also have an opportunity to react to users in real time, says Deloitte, by creating virtual environments that react to users' moods and behaviors. "This, in effect, puts the enterprise at the core of human-centered design: design emphasizing comfort, health, safety, happiness, productivity, and growth."

These are exciting advancements, but with great power comes great responsibility. Once an environment is rendered virtually, people have free rein to make anything appear as they wish. Privacy issues are also a concern, with Oculus Rift and its parent company, Facebook, among others, already drawing criticism over the amount of data collected from virtual devices.

But the potential to improve how we work, socialize, and live is too great to ignore. Previously delegated to the realm of entertainment, the technology can now serve as a valuable tool to help humans function better in an increasingly fast-paced and complex world. Applied in business, it has the potential to provide actionable business intelligence that can be used to create new business opportunities.

To learn more about transforming data into business insights, explore our Big Data solutions.

1. Nelson Kunkel, Steve Soechtig, Jared Miniman, & Chris Stauch.  "Augmented and virtual reality go to work: Seeing business through a different lens." Deloitte University Press. 2016.

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