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If, when you think of virtual reality and its uses, you imagine geeks with headsets playing computer games and space simulators, then you’d probably be right. However, this technology also offers massive benefits for industrial applications.  A number of companies in different market sectors have already implemented this technology and the feedback from it looks incredibly promising. 

The main reason virtual reality has been making headlines as the big technology trend of 2016 is based around the release of three major virtual reality headsets: Oculus Rift, known for being the Kickstarter project bought by Facebook; HTC Vive, backed by the Steam platform (the largest PC digital game distributor); and PlayStation VR from Sony.

Additionally there are more basic systems being released simply using smartphones such as Samsung Gear VR or even Google Cardboard (yes, it’s as simple as some folded cardboard to hold lenses and a smartphone).  These systems are decreasing in cost, and making the tech more accessible, so does this open up opportunities in VR for your business?

Currently the primary uses in industry are based on the appeal of creating virtual products and prototypes, which enables companies to save time and cost in the development process, as well as offering clear benefits for customers to interact with products before they have actually been launched. Well-known companies such as Ford, Infiniti and Caterpillar use VR systems for virtual product presentation, so that potential customers can see and interact with a life-like vehicle in the virtual world. Similarly, this product presentation works well in the architectural field for presenting and reviewing building spaces that would otherwise be left to drawings and renders. All parties, from house buyers and owners to architects, designers and builders are able to walk inside the virtual building and take a look around before a single brick has been laid. It’s not difficult to see the possible savings by using this method to pick up on mistakes and reviewing prior to design sign-off.

The benefits of virtual reality in healthcare have been apparent for some time; for a surgeon to be able to plan surgery and practice techniques in a virtual world without any risk to the patient is a clear advantage. Because of this, the virtual setting is ideal for training scenarios and specialist companies are combining this technology with touch control to immerse the user into a VR environment for a more realistic experience. 

For product development companies, this technology can be implemented as part of the design process. This can include exporting CAD and 3D renders to the virtual world to allow clients or consumers (including those with a limited design engineering background) to interact with them and give early feedback prior to further design work and time-consuming prototyping. It can also be used for running virtual builds of production lines and validating assembly/ disassembly procedures. For the design engineers and 3D artists out there, 3DSystems have just released the Touch 3D Stylus, which has force feedback to allow you to feel and physically sculpt your 3D products. It will be interesting to see what other products and technologies will emerge in the near future specifically targeting the design and development professionals. 

At Cambridge Design Partnership we have experimented with both Oculus Rift DK1 and the latest DK2, which were both compelling devices, but, we felt, lacked some elements of finesse required for proper industrial implementation. The main drawbacks were the lack of higher resolution displays which meant that pixels were visible rather than clearly defined edges or lines and this also meant that text was not clear to read. Bigger issues that have been widely reported are the slight delay in tracking head movements which can cause nausea and even vomiting in some people.  However, the new releases this year all promise to answer these challenges by utilising better tracking technology and faster responses – so we will watch these developments with interest.

It’s clearly an exciting time for virtual reality in the gaming world and also industry, where more opportunities and applications are likely to open up as the technology matures. Interestingly, it’s the computer geeks buying these headsets as part of the multi-billion pound gaming industry that’s really driving the technology that can then be used in fields such as design, architecture, civil engineering and even medical healthcare to help save lives. However, it pays to keep in mind that this technology is still in its infancy, and whilst it’s easy to get overexcited with all the hype, the proof will ultimately be in the virtual pudding.

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