360-degree photography and VR are breaking new ground, not just in gaming but also in business. Leading companies are finding that a more immersive experience pulls their users in.

Some of the world’s biggest players, such as General Motors and McDonald’s, are getting serious about VR and 360-degree technology, building new products and VR experiences for their customers. For example, if you stop by a McDonald’s in Sweden, you can turn your Happy Meal into a pair of virtual reality goggles. Just slide your smartphone into the specially folded box and you can play a game where you hit the ski slopes.

Last year, I declared VR was not quite ready to explode, due to cost of the equipment, a gaping hole in available content, clunky headgear, and the financial viability of some early innovators. That prediction turned out to be true for most industries, with the exception of gaming. On the business-to-business and business-to-consumer sides, too many businesses are still viewing 360-degree photography and VR as bells or whistles they don’t need to think about yet, or ever.

That is a big mistake.

Virtual reality is the future of content consumption. There are huge wins waiting for businesses and photographers alike, if we are willing to get messy, creative, take some risks, and step into the future of visual storytelling.

Opportunities for content creators

Most exciting for me, as CEO of 500px, are the new opportunities these technologies create for photographers. The most creative and entrepreneurial photographers around the world now have a new chance to become experts before the field gets glutted. For these artists behind a lens, the ability to layer visual stories is one of the most exciting times in the photography industry’s recent history. As proof that 360-degree photography and VR are on the brink of being mainstream, just think of the new terminology being adopted. At Photokina last September, one Nikon photographer used the term “story worlds” to describe the possibilities of this new era.

The last time we saw a photographic shift of this magnitude, in the early 2000s, the introduction of the sub-$1,000 camera created a revolution in stock imagery and thousands of former hobbyists were able to turn their passions into new careers. But, as with all industries, maturity brought congestion, competition and higher prices. For a photographer or videographer, 360-degree and VR offer clear opportunities to become an early innovator, and thus a leader in this new field.

Over the last year, we have seen both 360-degree photography and interest in VR grow rapidly in our 500px community. In that time period, the number of our members who report owning equipment for and shooting 360-degree photography jumped from a handful to nearly 5 percent of our directory members. I predict that by year’s end that number will double. The content gap is closing.

There are also promising gear advances on the near horizon. Magic Leap, the company that uses a head-worn display to project virtual images onto the real world, is expected to ship some form of its headset later this year, at a price between $1,000-$2,000, and has invested in hiring a large stable of content creators.

The film and video world is also making huge leaps in technologies to support VR. People are being drawn into VR entertainment, with TV shows like Foo VR. Facebook clearly agrees this nascent industry warrants investment, with the brand new introduction of two new VR video camera designs: the Surround 360 x24 and x6. Both offer a new element of depth to VR video, with “6 degrees of freedom,” so the viewer can move forward and backward in a scene, not just left and right, making VR much more realistic. Why would a consumer social network invest in video creation? Because, like Magic Leap, Facebook knows consumers need great content in order to compel them to purchase headgear. Although headgear itself is still an issue, there will be advances, and soon. I believe we will see more glove-styled input devices or even hand-tracking within the year.

Opportunities for business

No matter your niche, you should be looking to offer 360-degree images or a VR experience to your customers, even if the first iterations are rudimentary. You don’t want to be playing catch-up in VR.

Is this hard? Does it feel costly and exploratory without a proven path for profitability and especially when the experience is still dependent on the consumer’s purchase or use of clunky headgear? Of course it does. But every company needs to invest some funding in experimentation. In a few short years, we will be living in a base world that will sometimes be indistinguishable from virtual reality, and where business clients and consumers alike will no longer just be delighted by an immersive experience, but will expect it. People get jaded pretty fast.

How to get started

Because both 360-degree photography and VR are still relatively new experiences for many consumers, try offering one or both of these experiences to your potential customers. Some of our travel clients use 360-degree photography to let people see a location or accommodation in situ, encouraging them to book immediately versus just browsing. As cameras improve, equipment prices continue to drop, and the consumer experience is made easier, I also predict a surge in the availability of affordable 360-degree stock photography, similar to what happened in 2005 with traditional stock.

Find your most innovative team members and preferably a multi-functional mix of marketers, designers and customer service representatives and consider what you want your clients to purchase or do. It is very important that every person in your company is thinking about how to use VR. Brainstorm how you can bring VR into your company, your offices, your products, and begin your journey on this wave of the future.

Andy Yang is the CEO of 500px and an advisor with MaRS’ Consumer & Commerce cluster.

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