The Virtual Reality Revival

14 Jul 2016

Originally written for Medill News Service.

 

August Wasilowski, InContext Solutions research and development team member, doing a demonstration of one of the company’s virtual reality retail simulations. Kelly Calagna/MEDILL.

 

Virtual reality flopped in the early 90s when consumers were left disenchanted, and often nauseated, by clunky experiences. However, technology and concept are finally meeting at a marketable crossroad for an innovative revival.

 

“You put a headset on and you don’t know if you’re in the real world or not, that is where virtual reality is going,” said Tracey Weidmeyer, cofounder and chief technology officer at InContext Solutions, in an intimate tech talk at the company’s downtown Chicago office Tuesday afternoon.

 

Weidmeyer’s talk, titled “Cutting Through the Virtual Reality Noise,” gave an insider perspective on where virtual reality has been, where it is and where we will see it next.

 

“The way we approach [virtual reality] is that it can’t just be easier, it has to be magnitudes easier,” said Weidmeyer. Research and review of the past market failures has shown that most consumers will not adapt the technology otherwise. Therefore, developers have designed programs where “ninety to 95 percent of the time you are doing in that simulation what you are doing in the real world,” said Weidmeyer.

 

In addition to a better user experience, developers have also evolved the use of the technology beyond its original entertainment purposes. Virtual reality is now entering the arenas of heath care, education, retail, engineering, real estate and the military.

 

As it expands within these new territories, virtual reality is expected to grow in market value from $5 billion to $30 billion by 2020, according Weidmeyer, based on information provided by the 2016 Vision Summit.

 

“It is really underestimated how much there is to offer on the [business to business] side, and I cannot stress that enough,” said Weidmeyer. InContext Solutions is at the forefront of developing virtual reality solutions for businesses, creating customer retail simulations for companies such as Johnson & Johnson, Campbell’s, CVS, General Mills, Kraft Heinz and Walmart.

 

At the conclusion of the talk, team members led interactive demonstrations with an HTC Vive headset of the company’s virtual reality simulation that it is developing for 7-Eleven. The simulation allows customers to navigate a stunningly designed virtual 3-D store to shop for items.

Jessica Buchleitner, a Northwestern University grad student, views a virtual reality simulation using a Samsung Oculus headset. Kelly Calagna/MEDILL.

 

Surrounded by the latest interactive technologies, it seemed inevitable that the hottest one on the market would be brought up, so when an audience member mentioned Pokémon GO, the room let out a collective chuckle.

 

Pokémon GO is a mobile video game app that uses augmented reality technology, which “is a distant cousin to virtual reality,” as Weidmeyer described it. Instead of having an entirely generated simulation, augmented reality layers computer-generated simulations onto the real-world surrounding the user.

The game’s popularity has taken the world by storm and the internet is abuzz as the app is closing in on surpassing Twitter’s number of daily active users, according to data released on SimilarWeb.

 

“It’s the best!” said Cory Yoshinaga, 24-year-old student and avid Pokémon GO player from Thousand Oaks, California. “It’s a combo of nostalgia coupled with virtual reality,” said Yoshinaga as he described an emotional draw to the technology for users as a means of bringing childhood memories to life. Like many players, Yoshinaga grew up playing the Pokémon card game and watching its corresponding television series.

 

Weidmeyer said engaging in such augmented reality games “will help people prep for more advanced models” of virtual reality. He added that the game is “a testament to how viral [virtual reality] can go with the millions of people running around out there,” trying to catch ’em all.

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