The rapid growth of the mobile sector has had an unexpected dividend by bringing down the costs and improving the quality of motion sensors, screens, and processors it has helped usher in a new era of virtual reality technology.
Systems previously available only to largest manufacturers or to the military can now be put together with consumer-grade technology at a fraction of the price, and companies are already taking advantage of the opportunities.
When it comes to virtual reality, one of the biggest bangs for the buck is in virtual prototypes. Virtual models of buildings, oil tankers, factory floors, store shelves or cars can now be uploaded into a virtual environment and examined by safety inspectors, designers, engineers, customers and other stakeholders.
The Ford Motor Company, for example, has long been using virtual reality when it comes to prototypes and simulations, but the new wave of virtual reality technology is dramatically expanding its reach.
Ford's Immersive Virtual Environment lab, one of several areas in which Ford uses virtual reality, for example, has recently added the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset to its virtual reality platforms.
It's used in combination with a shell of a car where the seat, steering wheel, and other parts can be repositioned to match those of a prototype car.
"If you look at it, you'd think it was a very stripped-down vehicle," says Elizabeth Baron, who heads up the lab. But when engineers sit down in the driver's seat and put on virtual reality headsets, they're virtually transported into the interior of the prototype.
"You have a gas pedal, brakes, steering wheel, a door, and when you're touching stuff, it's real," Baron says. "But when you're looking around, you're seeing the virtual data. That's where the Oculus is specially useful."
The Oculus Rift is the head-mounted virtual reality display that ushered in the current age of virtual reality with a $2.4 million Kickstarter campaign in 2012, followed by a jaw-dropping $2 billion buyout by Facebook earlier this year.
The Oculus Rift hasn't officially hit the market yet, but developer kits are available from the company for $350 each and more than 100,000 have already been sold. The device combines a high-resolution screen, motion sensors, and a set of lenses. The motion sensors track where the user is looking and the lenses stretch out the screen so it covers most of the user's field of view. The result is a very convincing illusion that the wearer has been transported into a virtual world.
"I'm extremely excited about the developments in the headspace scene and the work Oculus has done to bring low cost, wide-field of view to the market," Baron says. "I'm just over the moon about it. The good thing for Ford is, with our approach for using different display technologies, we're already ready to take advantage of the developments that come out of the virtual headset space."
Another virtual reality system is a CAVE (computer assisted virtual environment), which is a room with large screens on three walls and on the ceiling. Users wear stereoscopic glasses for a holodeck-like effect life-size, 3D images of objects appear in the middle of the room, so that engineers can walk around and examine them.
Another system allows users to walk around inside a large open space while it tracks their position. "We can put an F-250 [super duty truck] into that environment and you can walk around it like it's a life-sized vehicle," Baron says. "It's like an inspection tool for what we're producing and what our customers might take delivery of. That's a really important aspect in our product development process."
A virtual environment allows engineers to dial up different lighting settings, to see how the exterior would look at noon on a hazy day, or in the evening or under mercury vapor lights. Virtual environments also help enable long-distance collaboration, she says.
"We also have a virtual space in Australia, and if they're immersed and we're immersed at the same time, we can see where they are in the virtual environment and we can talk to each other," she says. "We can say, 'Look at this, look at that.'"
And virtual reality allows the company to look at many more prototypes than would have been possible if they had to be actually built.
"There is no way we could build thousands of prototypes," she says. "We would only be able to build a handful. But also, there is no way we could check in the physical world all the things we check in the virtual worlds. We can make intelligent decisions about our design, with respect to how we manufacture it, and that's a huge time save and cost save."
Ford is expanding its use of virtual reality, she adds. "We're actually creating another virtual space here in Dearborn [Michigan] to handle the overflow," she says. "We're so packed. We can't fit in what we can do in one day. It's been shown to be so valuable."
Ford also uses virtual reality for manufacturing assembly simulations, to help ensure the health and safety of workers, for training, and to study how drivers behave.
"We have driving simulations, another virtual reality application, where we'll bring in people who haven't slept all night and ask them to perform some tasks," she says. "And then perform an analysis on how they respond versus someone who's had their fresh cup of coffee and they're bright and cheerful in the morning."
Other manufacturing companies are also upgrading their virtual prototypes from simple 3D graphics on a monitor to fully immersive virtual reality systems such as those made possible by the Oculus Rift and similar devices.
Medical device companies, for example, are among the early adopters, says Jeremy Duimstra, a professor of user experience at University of California San Diego and CEO and creative director at San Diego-based MJD Interactive, which counts Disney, Red Bull, P&G and Titleist among its clients.
"Being able to virtually interact with a device in the design phase, without having to build physical objects ... allows for more innovation," he says.
Plus, there's the cost savings of materials and manpower of physically mocking up hundreds of prototypes. "Build the product virtually, test it, iterate, and only build when you know it's right," he says.
Environments that are physically dangerous for people are also ripe for going virtual.
"Our oil and gas clients are definitely interested in this space," says Mary Hamilton, who heads up the digital experiences research and development group at Accenture. Immersive virtual reality allows people who might be in different locations to visit a difficult-to-reach facility, to get views such as X-rays or schematic views that might be impossible in real life, and enables low-risk, lower-cost training for new employees.
Marketing applications are also expanding, she says.
For example, low-cost head-mounted displays will allow retailers to replace their immersive CAVE environments which can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to set up. Companies can use the technology to have focus groups walk through virtual stores, interact with different shelf layouts, or even try out new products.
"It would significantly lower costs, allow companies to do more of this, and allow them to do it in multiple locations," she says.
The second wave
One virtual reality wave has already come and gone, in the 1990s. Movies like "The Lawnmower Man," devices like Nintendo's Virtual Boy and virtual reality arcades made the technology hot, but by the time "The Matrix" came out at the end of the decade it was clear that virtual reality technology was too expensive and too bulky for widespread use. In addition, graphics quality was poor and high latency and poor head-tracking combined to make users nauseous.
As a result, virtual reality became limited to high-end, narrowly focused applications such as military simulations, movie special effects, and training and simulations in manufacturing, oil, and the medical industries, says Jacquelyn Ford Morie, formerly a virtual reality expert at the University of Southern California's Institute for Creative Technologies. Virtual reality immersion therapy has been used for a decade now to treat Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and to manage the pain of burn victims.
"Now we have this second wave of virtual reality," says Morie. "The difference between then and now is that it's affordable. Instead of a $30,000 head-mounted display, you now have a $300 head-mounted display."
The general population is also more used to technology than they were 20 years ago, she adds, and there are more companies creating content for the new virtual reality platforms. Her own company creates applications in virtual worlds for NASA and other enterprise clients.
"We're doing things like making virtual worlds that will help astronauts on long-duration space flight missions," she says.
Today, most enterprise virtual reality is internally focused, she says. That is likely to change as more of this technology gets into the hands of consumers, and she's looking forward to working on consumer-focused projects.
"If everyone has a 3D head-mounted display, there's no reason not to feed a preview of that new product," she says. "Create emotionally evocative, 3D immersive ads, so all of a sudden they feel like they're on the mountain, about to ski down with my new snowboard."
Korolov is a freelance writer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.