Back in the 80’s virtual reality (VR) was heralded as the next ‘big thing’, along with laser discs, and the Sinclair C5. So fast forward 30 something years and we see laser discs replaced with downloads and the ill-fated C5 being replaced with EV (electric vehicles) from all the major car manufacturers. If you were around in the 80’s you will remember the early pioneers of VR were tethered to large headsets, cumbersome controls, and looked ridiculous moving awkwardly around in an 8-bit world. NASA pioneered VR technology and while the concept made complete sense, technology prohibited mass adoption, until the rise of the smartphone.

So, I’ve taken the plunge and bought a VR headset to house my smartphone, part boyhood fantasy, part impulse purchase. After downloading a few apps, I strapped on the headset and was immediately surprised at how light and comfortable the headset was to wear, a far cry from my early experiences in a dimly lit amusement arcade.

Now at this point, it’s worth clearing up the differences between augmented reality and virtual reality. Augmented Reality (AR) is a digital technology layer that enhances an image or object to provide the viewer with additional information. Common examples can be found at museums where you view an object through your smartphone to watch a video or access additional content. Whereas, VR is the use of digital technology to create a simulated environment viewed through a headset.

Sat in a comfy chair I was prepared for my first ‘modern' VR experience, VR Roller Coaster. Firstly the graphics were light years from the 8-bit days of the 80's, but I wasn't prepared for how immersive the experience would be. While logic tells you that you are sat at home, completely devoid of risk your mind tells you differently. You know you are not moving, you don’t have all the sensory inputs from a normal roller coaster yet you cannot control your innate need to lean with the track as you hurtle along. After a couple of minutes, and falling off the chair once while in an endless series of loop-the-loops I’d had enough.  

After nausea passed, it hit me how immersive technology had finally reached a point of practical usefulness. The potential to change how users and employees could interact with their physical and digital environments was huge. Perhaps my VR Roller Coaster was not the best example but the potential to train people to perform dangerous, difficult or obscure jobs in a safe environment is now limitless. A good example of this is the collaboration between Hitachi and 3DVSL to bring Hitachi’s new Class 800 trains to life through the mobile simulator and virtual reality to meet the Department for Transport (DfT) contractual training requirements.

Other examples include manufacturing organisations using immersive technology to speed up product visualisation and prototyping while the British Army created a 360-degree VR recruitment video, so prospects could experience military training before they signed up. There is no doubt that when you combine immersive technologies with user movement, and other sensor and historical data you can create extremely personalised products, services and experiences.

Like we saw in the 80’s, the Sinclair C5 was not a bad idea, but the timing and application of the emerging technology were wrong. From my experiences I feel VR has now found its time in history, the technology is affordable and portable, but without clearly defined use cases may again slip back into obscurity for the masses.  AR lends itself well to mobile phones and tablets, making the timing and application of the technology easier for the masses but to date has gained little real traction.

Only time will tell, but if you get a chance I highly recommend trying a VR headset with your smartphone…just make sure someone else is wearing it and you can enjoy how ridicules they look exploring their surroundings because some things never change.