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Reality cheque: The big business of VR and AR

The UK’s new education secretary Damian Hinds has recently been in the news for his comments suggesting that technology, and in particular virtual reality (VR), should play a bigger role in schools.

Virtual reality, Hinds has said, can help kids to ‘explore rainforests’ or ‘steer ships’; inspiring them, letting them learn in a visual and interactive, and freeing up valuable time for teachers to focus on one thing: teaching.

Since virtual reality went mainstream, brought into the public consciousness initially through video games, it has been through a few revolutions. Some saw it as a gimmick, only applicable as a novelty item, while others recognised its potential. Statista now estimates that by 2021, the consumer virtual reality market will be worth $19 billion.

That’s just in the consumer market. Many have argued that the real promise of virtual and augmented reality lies in its industrial and commercial applications, such as in the classroom. Researchers at Statista seem to agree, projecting a huge rise in the global virtual and augmented reality market by 2022 – they expect it to be worth $209.2 billion by that point.

Where are these huge sums coming from? Looking more closely at the projections, it’s easy to see the difference. By adding augmented reality and industrial applications into the mix, the value of the market suddenly shoots up.

Augmented reality is still somewhat more nascent than virtual reality, though it was brought clatteringly into the public imagination by Pokemon Go. Mixing the virtual world with the real one means that we can enjoy experiences perhaps only previously imagined by science fiction.

And industrial and commercial uses of VR and AR differ from the consumer side in one important way. While consumer VR is exciting and fun, virtual and augmented reality can actively solve big problems, in a variety of industries.

Augmented Reality

Industrial realities

Take healthcare, for instance. Dementia is a blight on sufferers and those close to them, and it’s a growing problem as the population ages. According to the World Health Organisation it affects 50 million people worldwide and 10 million new cases develop each year.

But using virtual reality can drastically change how dementia sufferers experience the world. Through a process called reminiscence therapy, and with the help of startups such as Virtue, people suffering from dementia can enjoy experiences of their younger life in an immersive way.

These experiences, it’s reported, help provide moments of clarity, which, for anyone who has known a dementia sufferer, are clearly points of refuge in a world that has become confusing and frightening. Virtue says that it wants to ‘harness the power of immersive technology to make therapeutic approaches to dementia and cognitive impairment more effective, accessible, and affordable.’

And they’re not the only ones harnessing virtual reality to tackle dementia. Charity Alzheimer’s Research UK has designed an app called A Walk Through Dementia, which allows viewers to experience a taste of life with dementia and highlights symptoms beyond just memory loss.

Corporate learning and development is also set to benefit from the development and maturity of virtual reality hardware, software and pricing. As the use of ‘serious games’ take hold in the world of corporate L+D, and studies find that learning that has taken place in the environment where it will be applied ‘greatly increases retention rates and engagement,’ this $360 billion industry is also set to invest heavily in VR and AR technology.

The infrastructure behind VR and AR

The list of VR and AR industry applications could go on, but for now, there is one further particularly relevant example. Future Facilities is a data centre cooling and ventilation provider, which uses smart modelling, computational fluid dynamics and simulation to anticipate inefficiencies and problems in the data centre. The company has even gone a step further and offered virtual reality experiences to its customers so that they can ‘walk through’ their data centre and assess how and where to make changes.

At the same time, many in the data centre industry have said that virtual reality is one of the drivers behind the changing landscape of IT infrastructure. With such demanding latency requirements and truly enormous amounts of data to be processed, virtual and augmented reality are highly intensive activities for whichever technology is powering it.

Another trend that’s causing headaches in the IT infrastructure industry is the Internet of Things. There are seemingly infinite considerations when discussing IoT, but one of them is the development of what some people call the ‘smart home.’ These are homes where everything is connected – from the TV to the bathroom scales, in a way that can help you streamline your life and add value where you didn’t know you needed it.

Some retail companies have latched on to the smart home trend, with companies like Ikea adding augmented reality to their apps so you can see how a piece of furniture would look in your home.

It’s not beyond the realms of imagination to think of a sensor letting you know that a bookshelf or sofa is on its last legs, an app letting you check how its replacement would look in your house, and ordering it there and then – all without you having to leave the house. Perhaps the next big development will be finding a robot that can build your flat-pack wardrobe.

The underlying theme behind all of these case studies is that they all spell big business. Education, healthcare, IT infrastructure, retail – one way or another, they’re all serious business with big players. And with every industry now desperate to find a competitive advantage, the people that work behind the scenes and can make virtual and augmented reality even cheaper, faster and more useful than it already is are likely to take a piece of that big business.

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