The Future of Virtual Reality

Whatever happened to the virtual reality revolution?

There’s no such thing as a ‘mainstream’ adoption of virtual reality, at least not in the way most people imagine it. We won’t all end up sitting at home, Ready Player One style, plugged into a virtual reality headset. That sort of set up is too complex and expensive (for now) to be anything other than the preserve of hardcore gamers and early tech adopters. And VR won’t replace smartphones because there’s no realistic scenario where we’ll all need to start inhabiting our own VR bubble 24/7.

So why did we bother to create Digital Jam? Because we realised early on that the potential for VR goes far beyond entertainment verticals. The perception of ‘mainstream’ VR is an illusion. In practice, there is already a spectrum of immersive technologies being applied across the military, automotive, fashion, retail, medical and education industries.

The confusion partly stems from the fact that industrial VR is not always being used in a familiar head mounted display, emerging instead as a hybrid of augmented reality, artificial intelligence and haptic interfaces. Since most folks are already familiar with the gaming application of VR, here are some current examples of workplace applications that you might not have considered. . .


Being able to remap production lines in virtual environments can allow experimentation without the costs
of physically repositioning factory machinery. VR remodelling also allows a machine operator – or a whole team – to test out multiple configurations. By experiencing layouts before they’re implemented, ongoing savings can be achieved through increased time management and efficiencies.

Fujitsu is currently experimenting with on-the-floor training using augmented reality. For manufacturing industries that operate big, complex machines requiring skilled operation, it’s using displays that map real time instructions over the view of the trainee. In this way, the trainee can operate large, unfamiliar and dangerous machinery without the very real risks of physical harm.

High risk training

The survival of workers in life or death situations could depend on the responses they learned in realistic, high stress simulations. While the military leads the way in realistic battlefield / high stress training exercises, the high costs of such realistic simulations prevent other industries from following suit.

Training in virtual reality can be cheaper and safer but, most importantly, can deliver believable levels of stress and danger. We’re talking here about VR on a room scale for oil rig workers, the police, fire department and first responders, using a combination of headsets and interaction with physical props. So an ambulance crew might experience treating a casualty next to a burning vehicle when in fact they are in a room, the car is just stacked boxes and the patient is a regular CPR dummy.

Spreading knowledge globally

The teaching of surgeons hasn’t changed much over the last hundred years, with trainees still standing at the edge of an operating theatre observing the surgical team. Inserting a 360° camera directly over the patient not only records the details of the surgery but also allows trainees to observe the team’s dynamics.

In April 2016, Medical Realities broadcast the world’s first live cancer surgery. This reached 4.6m people, many of whom were students in universities and teaching hospitals worldwide. For the first time, students in countries unused to such high levels of teaching were witnessing procedures they’d never seen before.

VR as treatment

Psychologist ‘Skip’ Rizzo and the team at the University of Southern California have, for some time now, been using VR systems for battlefield scenario testing. That’s placing former soldiers into realistic military situations in order to clinically assess their post-traumatic stress disorders by finding its triggers.

But of course, PTSD isn’t unique to the military and Rizzo’s research can be applied to help people mentally adjust to many different situations. The ‘social learning theory’ is that you can encourage people to adopt beneficial behaviours by watching others perform them. So VR could be used to deal with social phobias by introducing chronically shy people to virtual crowds. We’ve barely begun to explore such possibilities.

Virtual pain management

The University of Washington’s SnowWorld is being used by burn victims to let them ‘escape’ into a virtual environment when their dressings needs to be removed. By engaging in snowball fights with penguins during this painful procedure, the reliance on pain killers can be reduced. Not only does SnowWorld distract but the snowy scenes also work to lower the patient’s core temperature. Such is the power of the mind.

Tanya Laird has been at the forefront of emerging creative technologies spanning games, lm & TV, comics, music, VR and AR. She is the winner of a Women in Games Award (Unsung Hero) and the founder of Digital Jam.