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Virtual reality and gaming: it’s meant for more

Posted by Sam McKenna on 15th March 2019

Once thought of as a technology of the far distant future, we now live in a world where we can experience virtual reality (VR) from the computing power we hold in our pocket. I’d tried VR once before with my phone and an overpriced cardboard box, but while I understood the premise, I knew there was more to it given the right equipment.

Earlier this year, I was lucky enough to get my hands on an Oculus Rift VR system of my very own at a heavily discounted price. My friend was moving out of the country and couldn’t risk accidentally mistaking his flimsy bedroom walls for bad guys with guns. After buckling it in to the passenger seat and driving it home, I immediately plugged in the necessary cables and set up the sensors around the room. I slipped the headset on, picked up the controllers and was instantly transported to a new world.

One moment I was in the front room, the next I was hundreds of miles above the Earth mending damaged components on the International Space Station. An hour later I’m firing rifles in the jungle and then relaxing in the evening to catch up on Netflix in the cinema with my friends from across the globe. I was hooked.

However, while the technology was incredible, I couldn’t help thinking this technology could be used for more than beating baddies and watching movies. VR can be used to simulate the makeup of turbo engines, the structural integrity of buildings and sit in meetings with virtual colleagues thousands of miles away. It’s meant for more — it’s virtual reality, not virtual gaming, after all.

Thinking outside the box

Technology is constantly evolving and so is the way it’s being used in education. The digital gamification of classroom learning has been an idea put into practice in recent years, but VR can offer a lot more here. It can bring students closer to environments and locations they wouldn’t otherwise fully grasp with traditional teaching methods, unbound by geographical or logistical constraints. Students can learn from VR demonstrations rather than lectures, allowing teachers to explain topics better by immersion instead of PowerPoint presentations.

Additionally, training skills for high-risk jobs needing precision and practice can benefit hugely from a virtual environment. VR is currently being used to help train medical surgeons and bomb-disposal personnel, an area which is otherwise dangerous, expensive and far from the real experience. Unfortunately, in areas like these, you can’t exactly afford to ‘learn on the job’.

A helping hand

Learning isn’t just for the classroom either. Throughout our lives, we’re thrown in the deep end and need to adapt. Whether it’s a new job, picking up a hobby or assembling flatpack furniture, there’s always something new.

For some, it’s learning to adjust to a very different world to the one they’ve previously known having spent decades behind bars. VR has been employed by correctional facilities in the United States to become accustomed to life beyond the walls once again. To help with this, the inmates are enrolled on a three-year programme where they gradually learn to deal with conflict and handle the infamously efficient supermarket self-checkout.

No basket required

The idea of using VR to browse online stores has been in circulation for several years now, but with the technology becoming more advanced and lowering in cost as time progresses, it can start to be put into practice.

Unsurprisingly, retailers are taking notice of VR’s commercial potential and paying attention to accommodate shoppers’ needs in an effort to to reach higher similar conversion rates to bricks-and-mortar stores. With modern VR, it’s not just about seeing the product in front of you, but reaching out, touching, holding and trying them out for yourself. A potential use for VR is to break into the online clothing market, worth over $100bn in the United States as of 2018, where users can pick clothes out from virtual racks, trying them on with a gesture while checking out their virtual reflection.

Virtual shopping’s not just for clothes though. Walmart filed two patents in 2018 regarding VR furniture shopping, where users can wear a headset and sensory gloves to browse the catalogue and achieve an in-store experience in the comfort of their own home. Of course, VR isn’t the answer to every shopping activity; some would work best with augmented reality (AR), but we’ll leave that for another blog.

As the VR market grows rapidly in size from technology becoming more advanced and with greater accessibility to the wider population, I’m sure we’ll come up with even more creative ways to stop us from leaving the house entirely. Society will move closer and closer to becoming like that of Ready Player One as our reality as we know it becomes almost entirely virtual. Perhaps, I’m not sure.

In the meantime, though, I’ll stick to blasting the undead and riding rollercoasters from my comfortable, textured and very real armchair.