Virtual Reality Goes Back to Work October 2013
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Although Oculus Rift, Microsoft's Kinect, Google Glass, and other innovations are bringing new virtual-worlds hardware to consumers, workplaces have seen little innovation in the hardware to support virtual environments since a few sectors experimented with virtual reality in the early 1990s. Today, almost all workplace virtual worlds run on conventional computers. But could the falling cost of virtual-reality hardware, driven by trends in consumer electronics, create a resurgence in hardware-based virtual reality at work?
A Brief History of Virtual Reality in the Workplace
The first commercial virtual-reality systems arrived in the late 1980s and early 1990s. One of the earliest approaches was to combine stereoscopic near-eye displays, head-tracking position detectors, and (sometimes) sensor gloves. These systems had various problems, including high cost and causing motion sickness in users (Oculus VR is now trying to popularize this approach once again with Oculus Rift). To overcome some of these challenges, researchers started building virtual-reality caves—rooms equipped with multiple projectors that present images over entire walls and sometimes floors and ceilings. EON Reality's Icube is one existing commercial example of this approach. Some early approaches to virtual reality simplified the technology further, relying on a single wall and large stereoscopic display only.
These early virtual-reality systems found limited commercial success. The US military used them to train personnel in battlefield operations, and oil and gas companies used them to help geologists plan and monitor oil wells. These applications—in which large technology investments could save lives and millions of dollars—were the exception. For most organizations, the stakes were not so high, and the available technology budgets were much smaller.
By the late 1990s, workplace virtual reality looked as if it would be consigned to history for all but a couple of niche applications. Most organizations focused on web technologies and buying commodity hardware only. With its expensive, custom installations at fixed locations, virtual reality looked outmoded.
The Growth of Mass-Market Virtual Reality
Although the first generation of workplace virtual reality found little success, some of the technologies started to arrive in consumer-entertainment products in the late 2000s and during the present decade. Such systems are far cheaper than the first generation of corporate virtual-reality systems. A full-cave system from EON Reality still costs about $500 000 (and by the time custom software factors in, projects often exceed $1 million), but gamers can create a reasonable interactive experience for well less than $5000, with a large high-definition television, an Xbox One (with Kinect), and a home-cinema sound system.
Various developments show that consumer technologies are increasingly capable of creating virtual-reality-like experiences:
- Oculus Rift. As a previous Explorer article describes, Oculus VR is already selling a developer version of its virtual-reality headset and has demonstrated a consumer prototype with an improved display.
- Meta.01 and Google's Glass. Meta claims that it will ship its augmented-reality glasses in 2014—perhaps around the same time that Google releases a consumer version of its Glass smart glasses.
- Illumiroom. Another previous Explorer article details Microsoft's Illumiroom prototype projector system that displays games' content onto the walls surrounding a television.
- Embedded Leap Motion. In October 2013, HP released a laptop with an embedded version of Leap Motion's gestural control sensor. Leap Motion's sensor attempts to interpret hand and finger motions such as pointing, grabbing, reaching, and waving.
- Intel's Depth Camera. Intel has developed a depth camera for laptops and tablets (and perhaps eventually for smartphones) that targets a variety of close-range, single-user interactions. For example, Intel's camera could perhaps use its eye-tracking technology to monitor children's reading and determine when children become stuck on a word.
- Myo. Thalmic Labs is accepting orders for its gesture-sensing armband, Myo. A Myo demonstration (or perhaps simulation) video shows a user snapping his fingers to start music playback on a computer; raising his arm to cause a quadcopter to rise; controlling a four-wheel land robot using a combination of arm and wrist motions; controlling a first-person shooter video game using only his hands, arms, and the wearable device; and controlling a wearable video camera and recorder while skiing downhill.
These and other developments suggest that the range and capabilities of consumer technologies capable of creating virtual-reality-like experiences are likely to grow significantly in the next five years. Challenges remain, of course—various reviewers have criticized Leap Motion for lacking an intuitive user interface, and motion sickness remains a challenge for Oculus VR—but the variety of developments signals that good overall progress in virtual-reality hardware is likely.
The Return of Virtual Reality to the Workplace
As trends in consumer electronics drive down the cost of virtual-reality hardware, new opportunities arrive in the workplace. Siemens Industry offers software that helps companies plan industrial work processes by tracking people with multiple cameras, electromagnetic sensors, or full-body suits. The technology is complex and requires trained staff. Recently, Siemens created a simpler version of this system using Microsoft Kinect that is less accurate but is far easier to use. In one early application, workers use the Kinect system to plan nuclear-power-plant maintenance. The system includes a virtual representation of the power plant and allows workers to move through it, using Kinect, while calculating the potential exposure to radiation.
Google has launched a low-key campaign to promote Glass to organizations and businesses. News website Quartz reports that some of the most enthusiastic responses to Glass have come from manufacturers, teachers, medical companies, and hospitals. This result is perhaps unsurprising, because early efforts to create head-mounted displays for augmented reality often targeted engineering and medical applications. However, high costs kept applications niche.
In ten years, workplaces may feature many virtual-reality elements as display screens, tablets, and other devices include depth cameras as standard and as employees bring new wearable devices to work. Potentially, everyday meeting rooms may have become comparable to the environments that were once available to certain oil-exploration or military workers only. Custom software (for example, virtual replicas of real locations) is likely to remain expensive, but mainstream corporate-software vendors (for example, vendors of collaboration products) might start to add support for gestural controls and new display types at little or no extra cost.