How virtual reality is changing the world

Virtual reality is now – finally – becoming an actual reality, but it’s not just for computer games. The future is here, and the possibilities are endless...

If you’ve only considered entering the world of virtual reality (VR) but never taken the plunge, let me start by promising you if you like Batman, you can expect great things.

My interest in this new tech landscape was somewhat accidental. It was piqued at a party for Square Mile’s sister magazine Hedge, where London apartment hunters who’d assembled at the Shard for cocktails were given a Samsung Gear VR headset to view some swanky apartments that are not quite yet on the burgeoning skyline.

Inside the VR world, I had a view of an incredible lounge room with floor-to-ceiling windows, state-of-the-art kitchen, bedroom and pretty much everything you could dream up for the perfect home.

The apartment concept, designed by Lancashire firm Arc Media, showed off the Triple One Collection for new Southwark skyscraper Two Fifty One – and was developed especially for a headset and phone.

Arc Media is just one British company that’s ahead of the game when it comes to embracing this technology through the use of cameras, exceptional drawing and software development. Its architectural visualisation, led by MD Ben Bancroft, extends to both exterior and interiors including yachts and mansions.

These sales techniques, which are now being adopted by many luxury brands, are helping to create a buzz about monetising the VR industry in new ways.

And there’s no doubt a lot has happened since it became a mainstream concept in 2013. At that time the biggest stumbling block was hardware, according to industry experts. But that’s an issue that has recently seen a turnaround thanks to the delivery of five million Google Cardboard viewers onto the scene.

The Californian tech giant is bringing the ability to tune in to anyone with a smartphone – thanks to its innovative new headset designs, which cost as little as £15. And now it’s teamed up with the likes of the New York Times and the Star Wars franchise to deliver state-of-the-art content that gives your vision a workout.

Through exciting concepts like ‘Daydream’ [a new platform for high quality virtual reality], Google is set to deliver VR travel experiences and the opportunity for everyone to visit imagined worlds on their phone. [Continued below...]

Of course, the gaming sector has always been interested in VR. This month, Sony Playstation is bringing its first VR headset to market for the PS4. And Warner’s Batman, as one of the first games, is incredible.

At the launch, I was able to dip my toes into the imagined world of the caped crusader and within seconds of entering Wayne Manor, I was hooked. Alfred was even on hand to give me the key to Bruce’s piano.

While trying on the costume, I was tickled by my new look in the VR mirror. Seeing myself laughing while wearing a Batman costume was as amusing as it was surreal. Next, I accessed my weapons arsenal and after a few fun attempts at throwing my batarangs, it was time to check out a new environment.

I stepped onto what felt like a descending platform – down into the Batcave, where the effect of flying bats and water pouring down the stone walls was spine tingling.

It’s difficult to describe a world of virtual reality but it has all been made possible thanks to the investment in technologies. Sony really has gone all out to ensure its fans will love the experience. Its technical director, Ian Bickerstaff, developed the technology – and explains an unlikely source of inspiration: “The learnings we got were from virtual reality systems from the distant past,” he said. “People don’t realise that the Victorians were into virtual reality, except they didn’t call it virtual reality. They could view static images using these things called stereoscopes that they put up to their eyes.

“These are exactly the same principle that we have now with our current hardware. Studying all of these Victorian designs was brilliant because you learn how they solved all the different problems. There’s such a big variety of design solutions, which you can take so much inspiration from.”

What is particularly exciting about the growing VR landscape is its reach; now it’s hitting diverse markets that include clients from Major League Soccer to the US Department of Defense.

US Special Operations Command is now working on ‘rapid prototyping’ for its team of field operatives to report information about specified targets back to central command. The concept, led by CrowdOptic, is remarkable – and is similar to the work in the medical field, where VR is being utilised as a teaching technique in hospitals and universities.

“This alliance with SOFWERX is the reason why I conceptualise and start software companies,” remarked Jon Fisher, CrowdOptic’s founder and CEO. “It is an honour to see our technology applied to serve such a mission-critical need.”

Fisher’s firm supplies emergency management technicians with audio and video capabilities of CrowdOptic Eye and Google Glass to help doctors diagnose patients from the ambulance to ensure they receive the right treatment sooner and are dispatched to the most appropriate hospitals. The same technology is also used by teaching physicians in the operating room to help them to both collaborate with colleagues and provide viewing options for the classroom.

Elsewhere, with Facebook having launched Oculus Rift in the UK to a rapturous welcome this summer, tech companies are lining up to develop projects in this field.

Seattle-based agency POP is not a new kid on this particular block, having set up its business two decades ago. Now with a second outpost in Costa Rica, it’s feeling real traction in the market. Dave Curry, POP’s VP of emerging trends and technology, told me that AR/VR investment reached $1.1bn in the first two months of 2016 in the USA, outperforming the previous year. We were speaking about his HoloLens project with Major League Soccer. America’s football league offered executives at the organisation a moneyball-style experience in which they could reach out and touch stats as well as watch player action.

He’s worked across innovative projects with Microsoft and HTC Vive and says that technology is developing to adapt to price points that are on target for all customers: “If you allow yourself that freedom, it’s not hard to imagine a not-so-distant future where physical screens and interfaces are the exception rather than the rule.

“Our ability to construct and interact with purely digital appliances, tools, and personas will fundamentally change the way we interact with the world around us, and each other.”

And he said that the feedback from groups as diverse as filmmakers, brands and CTOs is adding confidence to the marketplace: “If smiles were a measurable metric for the space, it would be off the charts,” he added. “While still in its infancy, it’s already a pretty incredible medium. There’s little doubt that much of the VR content we’re going to see in the near term will come in the form of games.”

Now even the movie industry is getting in on the act with Iron Man director Jon Favreau having completed his first project. The Wolf of Wall Street actor says he was lured into the world of VR after heading to Wevr, the California-based studio and not long after he was on board to produce Gnomes and Goblins.

Meanwhile, indie filmmakers, Mechanical Dreams, aka Lacey Leavitt and Mischa Jacupcak, specialise in creating cinematic VR experiences. They’re also refreshing female faces making pioneering developments in a very male-dominated environment. And excitingly, they say that Hollywood agents are beginning to sit up and take notice. They are bringing their indie spirit to VR, forging new ground as they work to champion under-heard voices, including women and Native Americans.

Leavitt explains: “The type of investors who are excited by VR are a diverse group. They are a completely different population of investors than those who have been investing in independent films. As access to headsets grows, the audiences follow at staggering rates as the need for quality content is also exploding.

“The capabilities to inspire change and have a lasting affect is the difference between telling someone a story about travel and it being their own personal memories. The need is there and it’s only going to continue to grow. The implications both economically and in terms of real positive impact on our modern reality are mind boggling.”

Mind boggling, certainly. Exciting, fun, thrilling, and awe-inspiring, too: it’s hard to stop coming up with adjectives to try to describe the experience and potential of VR. What once seemed like a the stuff of science fiction has now been turned into something that is genuinely tangible and not only entertaining but educational, too.

There’s nothing stopping the VR industry, and as it becomes more accessible across more sectors, the opportunities are exponential.

For more information on Batman: Arkham VR visit batmanarkhamvr.com