Virtual reality, augmented reality, mixed reality – the terms are everywhere, but what is it all about, really? And what does it mean for you and your business, really?
The terminology and the technology can seem intriguing if you are not a technical expert. To help you orientate in this new digital landscape, Stereoscape has put together answers to some common questions on VR, AR, and MR and their significance to businesses.
1. What is virtual reality and how does it work?
Wikipedia defines virtual reality as: “the computer-generated simulation of a three-dimensional image or environment that can be interacted with in a seemingly real or physical way by a person using special electronic equipment, such as a helmet with a screen inside or gloves fitted with sensors.”
In plain English, this means that virtual reality is a digitally created environment, based on a real-life environment or an imaginary one. The digital environment is created through computer animation or by capturing reality either with a 360-degree camera or via 3D scanning – or using a combination of two or of all three methods.
You can enter the virtual world by wearing a headset (simple, mobile one using a smartphone as a screen – or a more sophisticated one that is connected to a high-performance computer). The headset shows you an image, and when you turn your head the image is modified accordingly. This way the person experiencing the virtual world has a full 360-degree view of the environment – just like in real life. It is also possible enjoy virtual reality as a 3D projection on one or several surfaces (so called VR cave); using stereoscopic 3D glasses like the ones we wear in 3D cinema. Even if the experience is not quite so immersive as with head-mounted display the projection-based VR is an option worth considering because not all people feel comfortable wearing a head-mounted display.
2. Virtual reality, augmented reality, mixed reality – what’s the difference?
Augmented reality in these days may be best known from and most popular in Pokémon Go – a game that surged the world some months ago. In Wikipedia AR is defined as: a live direct or indirect view of a physical, real-world environment whose elements are augmented (or supplemented) by computer-generated sensory input such as sound, video, graphics or GPS data. In augmented reality, the digital content is not anchored to the real world, and the real and digital worlds cannot respond to each other. There’s no interaction between the two.
Mixed reality in turn, as defined in Wikipedia, is the merging of real and virtual worlds to produce new environments and visualizations where physical and digital objects co-exist and interact in real time. So mixed reality, just like augmented reality, merges real world with digital content. But in MR, the digital overlay is anchored in the real world and the two worlds interact with each other, in real time. For example, Microsoft HoloLens eyewear that enables you to interact with high-definition holograms in a real environment is marketed as mixed reality equipment.
VR, AR, and MR are closely related technologies. As the technologies and especially the applications are very new, the definitions and terms still vary to some extend. Some definitions, for example, interpret mixed reality to encompass the whole spectrum between real reality and virtual reality. It seems more than likely that the different technologies will overlap and even merge in the future.
While there are similarities, there is, for sure, also a difference in VR, AR, and MR. Taking a somewhat simplified example from the world of Pokémon, one could say that with VR you can really enter the world of Pokémons and really throw the Poke ball to catch that Pikachu. You are wearing a VR headset and using your handheld controllers to throw the ball – but it feels like you really are a part of that imaginary world. With AR, in turn, you get to see the Pokémons through your smartphone as part of your everyday environment. Walking on the street, you just point your phone and there’s that Pikachu in front of the bus stop for you to catch. But when the bus arrives, the Pikachu will still appear in front of the real view. It’s just the background that changes. With MR it would be possible for your Pikachu to react to the arrival of that bus and, say, get on a certain bus but not on some other.
3. Just entertainment or serious business?
The simplified example above explains the differences of the three related technologies. Pokémon Go and other examples from the world of gaming and entertainment seem to have been the center of attention and the most commonly known applications. But the technologies are most certainly not limited to video gaming – on the contrary. Today the new technologies are showing up in a number of industries and business sectors, and the potential is huge. Design, engineering, maintenance, architecture, training, marketing, medicine, real estate…. the list is long.
Today VR, AR and MR are used for designing and testing cars, aeroplanes, construction machines, vessels, or even entire factories. Some oil companies are using the new tools to help finding oil and gas and others for marketing them (see Stereoscape’s project for Neste). Lockheed Martin is training military personnel for better mission readiness. NASA is training engineers on how to fix space satellites. Ford is designing new cars using virtual prototypes and taking consumers to the Le Mans racetrack. The Royal London Hospital is live-streaming surgery. And all this is done with virtual reality. Field service technicians at Thyssen Krupp are using HoloLens to diagnose and repair elevators. Trimble, in turn, is bringing architectural models to life as full-scale holograms, enabling remote teams to collaborate on the designs in real time and shortening the cycle between design iterations.
If the list of use cases for VR, AR, and MR is long, so is the list of business benefits they bring along: better performance, less risk of damage, more confidence in decision-making, time savings, fewer business trips, and, most importantly, clear cost savings. For example, sending a pilot to a warlike exercise in an actual F-35 is said to cost about a million dollars per hour – to do it virtually costs only a fraction.
4. Is virtual reality expensive?
Talking about money, a question one can’t avoid is the price of the new tools. The assumption very often is that VR is expensive. It is true that if you, for example, google the words “VR” and “expensive” you will find several articles saying: “yes it is”. But look a bit deeper, and you see that most of the articles are referring to the mass markets and, notably, the price of VR hardware from the consumer’s viewpoint. Undoubtedly for consumers, a device that costs several hundred euros, like HTC Vive, or several thousand euros, like Microsoft HoloLens, is rather expensive. On top they both need a computer that has power and capacity way over your average home PC. But when we talk about business use, is the cost of a headset or a powerful computer really an issue? Hardly.
For businesses the questions to be asked are related to the benefits and gains attached to the use of the new technology. How much will the use of VR, AR or MR add to the top and bottom line? How much more value can we capture by improving our processes or performance through VR, AR or MR? How much can we cut off from the time to market by testing our products and processes virtually before actually making or building them physically? How much can we save on travel expenses or shipping costs by doing things virtually? How much smaller will our ecological footprint be when we replace real with virtual? Can we improve safety by training our machine operators and field service technicians in hazardous tasks using virtual reality? The answers to these questions will tell you whether VR, AR, or MR is expensive or not..
5. What’s in it for me and how do I start?
VR, AR, or MR; what is the right technology to use and what brings the best results naturally lies on the project at hand. Where are you now and where do you want to go? What do you want to achieve? Do you need a fully virtual environment or do you just need to add some digital information on top of the real world? How are your competitors taking advantage of the new technologies?
What makes VR interesting is the possibility to take the viewer into a world that would otherwise be impossible to experience, for example, because it doesn’t exist yet, is too risky or too expensive. What makes AR interesting is its relationship with the real world. And further, what makes MR even more interesting is the possibility of the real and the digital world communicating with and reacting to each other in real time. And all three are adding value to business in several ways; reducing risks, shortening time to market, bringing cost savings, driving purchases. In training, VR becomes especially valuable in situations where training in the real world is costly, involves health risk to the inexperienced trainee or possible damage to expensive materials and equipment or where on-the-job training is otherwise difficult to arrange.
What is right for you naturally depends on your business. But one thing is clear: Just like in the “old digital media”, what works for TV doesn’t necessarily work in the web. The same applies to the use of the new technologies – there are no one-size-fits-all solutions. Every project has its own potential and challenges and the best results can be achieved when the project is designed and implemented with people and organisations specialised in the new tools. At Stereoscape we have a strong and experienced team committed to handle your VR, AR or MR project from start to finish and ready to help you every step of the way.
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