Look, I’m as fond of holodecks and the matrix as the next nerd. I was having queazy VR experiences back in 1994. That’s me just last month strapped into to a cheap plastic viewer, staring boldly into the future. I’ve been thinking and writing about virtual reality for over twenty years now.
But are we there yet? Is VR ready for mainstream adoption? And, aside from a few obvious niche cases, does it have any significant relevance for the enterprise?
This is the first of a series of “VR Skeptic” blog posts that will explore these questions. The AppsLab has already started to acquire some VR gear and is hunting for enterprise use cases. I’ll share what I find along the way.
So why am I a skeptic? Despite all the breathless reviews of the Oculus Rift over the last few years and the current hype storm at CES, the VR industry still faces many serious hurdles :
- Chicken and egg: developers need a market, the market needs developers
- Hand controls remain awkward
- The headsets are still bulky
- Most PCs will need an upgrade to keep up
- People are still getting sick
To this I would add what I’ve noticed about the user experience while sampling Google Cardboard VR content:
- Limited range of view unless you’re sitting in a swivel chair
- Viewer fatigue after wearing the googles for a few minutes
- Likelihood of missing key content and affordances behind you
- Little or no interactivity
- Low quality resolution for reading text
But every time I’m ready to give up on VR, something like this pulls me back: Google Cardboard Saves Baby’s Life (hat tip to my colleague Cindy Fong for finding this).
Immersion and Serendipity
I think VR does have two unique qualities that might help us figure out where it could make an impact: immersion and serendipity.
Immersion refers to the distinct feeling of being “inside” an experience. When done well, this can be a powerful effect, the difference between watching a tiger through the bars of its cage and being in the cage with the tiger. Your level of engagement rises dramatically. You are impelled to give the experience your full attention – no multi-tasking! And you may feel a greater sense of empathy with people portrayed in whatever situation you find yourself in.
Serendipity refers to the potential for creative discovery amidst the jumbled overflow of information that tends to come with VR. A VR typically shows you more content than you can easily absorb, including many things you won’t even see unless you happen to be looking in the right direction at the right moment. This makes it harder to guide users through a fixed presentation of information. But it might be an advantage in situations where users need to explore vast spaces, each one using his or her instincts to find unique, unpredictable insights.
It might be fruitful, then, to look for enterprise use cases that require either immersion or serendipity. For immersion this might include sales presentations or job training. Serendipity could play a role in ideation (e.g. creating marketing campaigns) or investigation (e.g. audits or budget reconciliations where you don’t know what you’re looking for until you find it).
Because VR content and viewers are not yet ubiquitous, VR today tends to be a solitary experience. There are certainly a number of solitary enterprise use cases, but the essence of “enterprise” is collaboration: multiple people working together to achieve things no single person could. So if there is a killer enterprise VR app, my guess is that it will involve rich collaboration.
The most obvious example is virtual meetings. Business people still fill airports because phone and even video conferences cannot fully replace the subtleties and bonding opportunities that happen when people share a physical space. If VR meetings could achieve enough verisimilitude to close a tricky business deal or facilitate a delicate negotiation that would be a game changer. But this is a very hard problem. The AppsLab will keep thinking about this, but I don’t see a breakthrough anytime soon.
Are there any easier collaborations that could benefit from VR? Instead of meetings with an unlimited number of participants, perhaps we could start with use cases involving just two people. And since capturing subtle facial expressions and gestures is hard, maybe we could look for situations which are less about personal interactions and more about a mutual exploration of some kind of visualized information space.
One example I heard about at last year’s EyeO conference was the Mars Rover team’s use of Microsofts’s HoloLens. Two team members in remote locations could seem to be standing together in a Martian crater as they decide on where to send the rover to next. One could find an interesting rock and call the other over to look at it. One could stand next to a distant feature to give the other a better sense of scale.
Can we find a similar (but more mundane) situation? Maybe an on-site construction worker with an AR headset sharing a live 360 view with a remote supervisor with a VR headset. In addition to seeing what the worker sees, the supervisor could point to elements that the worker would then see highlighted in his AR display. Or maybe two office managers taking a stroll together through a virtual floor plan allocating cubicle assignments.
These are some of the ideas I hope to explore in future installments. Stay tuned and please join the conversation.