If you think about VR, you’re probably picturing something like this: an immersive coral reef video, where you can turn your head to see tropical fish swim by. Or a state-of-the-art head-to-toe VR rig at a convention like Comic-Con or E3, for die-hard gamers and sci-fi fans. The most visible VR experiences tend to fall within one or the other end of the spectrum. One is a little shallow. Fun, yes, but after a few moments you think “OK, I get it.” The other is impossibly deep. Without some life changes, it’s a safe bet you’ll never have a haptic VR suit and treadmill in your living room. What are the practical applications for VR really?
It’s easy to think of VR as an entertainment experience, geared for personal use, and probably best enjoyed in a few years when some good supporting tech is in place. But this view leaves out some of the biggest chapters of the story. If you want to see the future of VR, you need to look at where it’s shaking things up today. And you need to look not only at the personal, but at the business, medical, emergency response, and therapeutic worlds. This is where most consumers will never even see how VR is being used to solve problems, build expertise, and improve lives.
We tend to think of the automotive industry as being totally grounded in the physical world. While this is true historically, the industry is also becoming more and more open to the digital world, exploring emerging technology applications like subscription models and self-driving systems — and VR. In fact, you can now find VR in all points of the automotive pipeline.
At the earliest stages of planning, engineers are using VR to sketch and wireframe life-size versions of new cars. Picture standing in an empty room, tracing a contoured path through the air with your finger, and seeing the line you described captured there in front of you: the roofline of your new car. Bringing prototypes to life in this way moves engineers beyond the 2D computer screen or clay model and see their creation in its true dimension, removing any mysteries about how details will look in real life. VR can remove mystery in the manufacturing process, too. Auto plant staff implement VR to get familiar with a model’s assembly components, practicing the build before going out onto the line and doing it for real. This reduces production time, allowing engineers to improve their prototypes without having to retool or reprogram machines.
The car is built: time for a test drive. In recent years, Chevrolet, Ford, Honda, Mercedez-Benz, BMW, and more have all used VR to demo concept cars at trade shows. The practice isn’t new. What is new, however, is introducing VR test-driving capabilities to dealerships. Audi London broke new ground in 2017 with a VR showroom, letting customers test and purchase the exact model they wanted, even if the model wasn’t currently in stock. Not only was it convenient for buyers, but it helped the dealership manage its stock and expenses more efficiently.
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broadcast the world’s first VR-livestreamed surgery to students around the world.
One of the strengths of a VR training experience is that it’s endlessly customizable, with simulations that reproduce varied and detailed real-world conditions in a controlled setting. This makes good practice for everything from an operating room to a combat environment.
The US Army now looks to VR to simulate everything from boot camp exercises and weapons training to battlefield triage and mission rehearsals. In some cases, these exercises would be impossible to practice otherwise. It’s made training more efficient and budget-friendly. But in extreme use cases, it can also be the difference between life and death.
What’s true for American soldiers is also true for American police officers — and the public with whom they interface. Though VR is being used across police training regimens, it’s found perhaps its most timely application in the simulation of traffic stops. A trainee approaches a car, not knowing whether the driver will be cooperative or combative, and because the driver’s avatar is also controlled by a real person, the nuances of the exercise will be different every time. Gestures and reactions can be examined and, if necessary, corrected, preempting the need for lethal force.
Washington Post reports, “A 2016 study concluded that virtual reality can be a successful substitute for real-world lab experiences. The results showed that there were no significant differences between students who practiced in a virtual environment and those who practiced in a physical lab.”
Finally, here’s a fun fact: the professional athletes you love are probably using VR in their training routines. The NFL, MLB, NBA, NHL, and many NCAA programs have been using various forms of the technology for years. Some organizations use 360-degree GoPro rigs at practices and games, recording every move, and offering a much more realistic opportunity for performance analysis than the traditional bird’s-eye replay. Others offer VR gameplay simulations, letting players examine the mechanics of hitting a knuckleball or finding an open receiver without the wear and tear of extra practice repetition.
Al Jazeera reports, “Studies show that 3D virtual reality can trigger the same mental and physical reactions as in real life. It’s this immersive quality that [researchers] hope to harness” The conditions that make VR perfect for job training — life-like simulations, minutely customized situations, consequence-free environments — make it ideal for therapeutic settings.
VR is especially useful in providing simulations that include triggers and coping skills. For example, subjects with paranoid tendencies (from bipolar disorder, psychosis, or schizophrenia) will be placed in commonly triggering situations, like a subway ride or crowded cafe. The behaviors of strangers, often a source of anxiety for the subjects, can be observed and processed without threat of detection. The subject can practice coping with these triggers in a safe space until they feel stable enough to try it in real life. Similar approaches are being taken to treat everything from battlefield PTSD, to autism, to the common fear of heights.
Clinical research is another area where VR can play a part. A study currently being performed at UCLA is attempting to unpack the roots of memory loss, especially loss associated with Alzheimer’s Disease. Subjects are given precise, variable tasks to perform in a VR space, and later, must remember the tasks and reproduce them. Brain activity is monitored throughout, giving researchers valuable biofeedback about how and why memories form.