Virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) is far from fulfilling the mainstream potential it's promised over the last few years. Whether it's a revolution in retail or entertainment, industry analysts love to say it's the year of VR.
That's not to say the medium doesn't have huge potential. These 15 uses for VR and AR, some of which are already in use today, show exactly why people are so excited by the future of the technology.
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1. Automotive manufacturing and design
Virtual reality can help car engineers and designers to effectively visualize the model they're building without having to use any physical materials. The technology allows for virtual prototypes and high-tech simulations of how a car would function under real-life conditions.
In fact, using the Oculus Rift, Ford Motor Company has made VR an integral part of its car manufacturing process. With its Immersion Lab based in Michigan (video above), employees can inspect the interior and exterior of a car. Designers and engineers can closely inspect a prototype car in the virtual world and analyze it for potential problems before the model is built.
2. A new form of journalism?
What better way to really understand what's going on in real-world situations than being immersed in them? Of course, we can't teleport to the center of every news story. What we can do is experience them in VR.
As journalist Nonny de la Peña, a journalist and the CEO of Emblematic Group, points out in the above video, several news organizations are already investing in 360-degree news videos. De la Peña's projects in immersive journalism transport viewers into real-life simulations using VR.
3. Helping inmates prepare for the outside world
A new early-release prison program in Colorado is designed to rehabilitate prison inmates that were convicted as juveniles. Though the three-year program utilizes a wide variety of training and mentorship methods to prepare inmates for release, the most popular by far has been an interactive VR element developed by NSENA CEO Ethan Moeller.
As VR Scout reports, Colorado correctional facilities are hoping to utilize VR to help expose inmates to the significant changes in society that occur while they are incarcerated. Using Samsung Gear VR, they are exposed to a variety of experiences, including informational experiences about dealing with conflict.
4. Surprisingly effective pain relief for medical patients
A recent study showed that VR can, surprisingly, ease severe chronic pain in patients. The pain levels of 120 hospitalized patients were recorded as part of the study.
Half of these patients were selected at random to use virtual reality headsets, for set periods - six times over the course of two days — the other half was used as a control group.
Incredibly, the study showed that VR is very effective at alleviating pain and that the worse pain a patient is in, the more effective VR is. As one of the researchers on the project said, virtual reality "nips signals in the bud at their origin, blocking pain from reaching the brain.”
5. A new type of immersive theatre
VR is, of course, widely associated with gaming, and 2019 has been a great year for VR games. However, the medium isn't nearly as popular as traditional PCs and consoles for gaming — VR is still a little dizziness-inducing for long sessions of gaming.
That's why companies have to go for a different approach and focus on what truly differentiates VR as a technology and a medium. The Under Presents by Tender Claw is a great example of this approach.
The game isn't only a VR experience, it's also a form of immersive theatre. It mixes gaming, cinema, live acting, and immersive theatre. If you join the game at the right time, you can interact with improv actors that form a seamless part of the virtual world.
6. A drug-free trip
Several artists and researchers have made efforts to recreate the effects of a hallucinogenic trip in virtual reality. Can it actually get you into a psychedelic state? Kind of, yes, and it might also be a useful exercise for those that are considering giving it a try and want to know what they're getting into.
A team of researchers from the University of Sussex, for example, recently conducted a study in which they combined trippy panoramic Deep Dream images with a 360-degree virtual reality headset. They dubbed the result of the Hallucination Machine.
Keisuke Suzuki, an author on the research told New Atlas, “we found there are several similarities between the two experiences, which suggests that the Hallucination Machine can indeed simulate a certain aspect of the psychedelic state.”
7. Triple A games
Gamers all over the world have been waiting for a new Half-Life game for over 15 years. Last year they got the announcement they had almost lost hope on, but not in the form they expected.
The new Half-Life game, dubbed Half-Life: Alyx, is to be released exclusively as a VR experience.
The news is huge for an industry that hadn't yet had full backing from a triple AAA franchise. Half-Life will be the first blockbuster game to be released exclusively as a virtual reality game.
8. Exposure therapy and rehabilitation
Aside from being used as a form of pain relief, virtual reality has also shown great promise as a form of exposure therapy for treating phobias as well as serious conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Studies have shown that exposure through VR can help patients to overcome their anxiety about certain fears and situations. If someone is suffering from PTSD, for example, they are gradually exposed to the situation that caused the disorder, allowing them to properly process what happened.
Virtual reality can also be used for physical rehabilitation of paralyzed people. Incredibly, by allowing them to visualize and retrain hand-to-eye coordination, VR headsets enable paraplegics to rebuild brain functions and regain control of paralyzed limbs.
9. Medical and military training like never before
Virtual reality could be one of the many technologies set to revolutionize healthcare. As LiveScience points out, virtual reality allows surgeons to practice difficult surgical procedures ahead of time.
These precise medical procedures can be the difference between life and death and it is incredibly important for a surgeon to have a way to visualize, practice and hone their abilities.
Much in the same way, the U.S. military uses VR to help soldiers train for their life or death situations. It uses virtual combat simulations that are not too dissimilar from popular videogames to train soldiers for real-life combat procedures.
10. Worldwide work collaboration
Digital nomads are increasingly becoming a larger part of the workforce. 70% of the workforce already telecommutes and more and more people are going fully remote. And yet, not having a physical workspace can make life challenging for people that suddenly find themselves isolated from the social side of office life.
VR allows employees of a company to collaborate on assignments without relocating to a physical location. It also has the potential to be a much more effective tool than Skype calls, where a great deal of body language is lost on callers that only see a small square image of the person they are talking to.
11. Amazing 3D art creation
3D painting and drawing are becoming a reality like never before thanks to VR applications that allow artists to create art in a 3D digital space, while also inhabiting that space in the physical world.
Oculus Story Studio, for example, created software that allows an artist to use a VR headset and haptic devices to visualize the art they are creating in real-time 3D. HTC has also released Google’s 3D painting app, Tilt Brush (video above), for the HTC Vive VR headset.
12. Space exploration from Earth
Researchers at NASA have turned to state-of-the-art VR technology to help them control robots as far away as Mars. At NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, researchers connected the Oculus Rift to motion-tracking equipment from the Kinect 2 and Xbox One videogame console to allow users to control a robotic arm using hand gestures.
Aside from that, VR is also being tested to help astronauts to de-stress with a bit of escapism from the reality of the harsh space environment they are living in.
And then there's the ability VR gives the average user to explore space virtually from their own living room. In fact, one of the last projects the late great Stephen Hawking worked on was a virtual tour of black holes in virtual reality.
13. The mirror world
Kevin Kelly, the founding executive editor of Wired magazine, and the mind behind the 1000 true fans formula recently wrote an op-ed for Wired on how he thinks augmented reality and virtual reality will change the world we live in, and it started with Pokemon Go.
That's to say, the article describes how the AR Pokemon game that shot to international fame for the way it created a virtual world over a map of our own physical world, might be the foundation for something much much bigger.
Kelly calls it 'the mirror world', a digital world transposed over our own where every building, object, and maybe even person has a tag in the digital world that can be read and accessed through VR headsets. Perhaps that's a long way away, but it's certainly a bold vision of how VR and AR might truly become the game-changing technology it has so far only promised to be.