Can startups afford to ignore VR?

Whether they want to conduct international meetings without leaving their desk or allow their consumers to step into someone else’s shoes, the time has come for entrepreneurs to embrace VR

Can startups afford to ignore VR?

It’s hard to ignore the current excitement around virtual reality (VR). Whilst we’ve seen undue hype around the medium before – in the form of the failed Nintendo console Virtual Boy and some execrable early 1990s cinema – vast steps forward in the technology have meant that VR is set to become the next big thing for innovation-hungry consumers.

Yet despite the buzz surrounding VR, it’s important to recognise that it’s still very early days for the technology. “It’s very much a product for early adopters,” says Henry Stuart, co-founder and CEO of Visualise, the VR agency. The sector’s heaviest hitters, the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, have only just hit the shelves and come with hefty price tags of £499 and £689 respectively. Coupled with the cost of a high-end PC, this will certainly put off the casual user. However, with the PlayStation VR being released later this year at a comparatively pocket-friendly £349, it seems likely it will only be a matter of time before increasing numbers of consumers are embracing VR. “That’s really going to break down the barriers to entry,” he says.

Certainly in the early days of VR, it seems gaming will be driving adoption. “VR gaming is a really amazing experience,” says Stuart. “You can’t compare it to anything else.” But gaming applications will just be the thin end of the wedge. Once products like the Rift or Playstation VR are in people’s homes, immersive content in the form of TV and films is set to become much more commonplace. Sky recently announced the creation of a VR studio and it seems likely that, given the potential of the medium, many others will follow suit. “There’s a whole world to be explored in terms of storytelling and entertainment,” Stuart says.

Potentially more revolutionary than its impact on gamers and cinema-goers will be the effect that VR has on the way we communicate. “Everyone perceives VR as being very isolating but the beauty of the technology is that it will actually become a great social enabler,” says Stuart. Indeed, social platforms are already betting big on the technology: not only did Facebook pay a cool $2bn for Oculus way back in 2014 but it also recently formed a social VR team to explore how people can ‘connect and share’ in VR. “They want to produce this platform where people can meet, share and enjoy things from anywhere in the world,” he says.

And it’s not only consumers that could benefit from the potential of VR as a communication tool – being able to connect via virtual presences could have some interesting ramifications for businesses. “In five or ten years’ time, I could be doing meetings without having to leave my desk and yet still feel like I’ve met these people face-to-face,” Stuart says. Particularly for startups trying to expand across timezones, meetings that bring attendees together in a virtual workspace could create far more cohesion between international departments and shatter the sense of separation between global offices.

As well as being a useful tool for looking your transatlantic colleagues in the eye, VR also means startups won’t need to take half a day out of the office to check out real estate. “When small businesses are looking at new venues or offices, they’ll be able to view these spaces in VR,” says Gavin Fox, creative director at Framestore, the creative studio that specialises in VR. Similarly, VR can be an effective design tool in three-dimensional spaces, allowing businesses to plan out spaces from an internal vantage point. “When it’s done properly, VR better enables someone to understand the geometry of a space,” he adds.

Being able to transport the user to a different space also makes VR a potentially useful mechanism for companies looking to engage new audiences. One example is a recent experience that Framestore put together for the footwear brand Merrell. Leading consumers along a virtual mountainside, VR helped highlight the innovative nature of Merrell’s new product while communicating the experience of using Merrell’s footware. In Fox‘s mind, this kind of blending of message and medium is a perfect application of VR. “Most brands advertise how a product will change your life,” he says. “That’s a very good way of thinking about VR: it offers a way to literally experience a different lifestyle.”

But VR’s ability to put users in someone else’s shoes can have more profound applications than this. “We’ve been using VR to show the work that Médecins Sans Frontières is doing to help refugees around the world,” says Stuart. From documenting the factors causing people to flee their home countries to revealing the work the charity does treating the sick in refugee camps, VR offers a first-hand perspective of refugees’ struggles that no other format could provide. “It feels like you’re there,” he says. “You have empathy for them and an emotional connection that you get from no other medium.”

Clearly VR has enormous potential to revolutionise the way companies communicate, both internally and externally. But this doesn’t mean that there aren’t still ways the technology can be refined and improved upon.

One way that the effectiveness of VR can be boosted is by deepening the sense of presence users get when they’re using it. “Presence is when you make the experience so good that people actually believe they’re there, even if only fleetingly,” says Stuart. “They’re lost in the moment.” Not only is the development of VR peripherals going to be a very fertile ground for innovation but it will help increase this sense of immersion; from better motion tracking to Teslasuit, a full-body haptic feedback system, many new products are being developed that will help make VR a much richer experience. “All of these things really make it very realistic,” he says.

Something else that will need to be worked out is how to make the technology safe to use in a cluttered living room. “If it’s going to work for a home audience, we need to have a better way of communicating the physical space you’re in,” says Fox. As VR experiences come to require more movement from the user, preventing whacked shins and trampled cats will become a more pressing concern. Fortunately, HTC has developed the Chaperone system to solve this very problem, using lasers and beacons to track the physical space around the user and overlay nearby objects on the screen. “It’s about making people feel like they’re still connected to the real world,” he says.

Ultimately though, VR only looks like improving from here, which means there will never be a better time for startups to get involved.

Josh Russell
Josh Russell

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