When the term “virtual reality” first became a topic of general conversation, many people had grand expectations of what it would look like when it arrived. Spurred by sci-fi movies like 1982’s “Tron” and 1992’s “The Lawnmower Man,” we imagined complex, fully immersive environments entered using headsets and specialized haptic suits.
A quarter-century later, we’re still not quite there. Hollywood studios and game developers still face challenges fulfilling that flashy vision of VR. What we’re seeing instead are different kinds of VR success stories – ones we never anticipated.
For example, corporations have quietly been taking advantage of VR, with companies like PwC, Accenture, and travel center giant Pilot Flying J using VR for recruiting.
These companies have been using VR to limit turnover by giving recruits a more accurate depiction of what their work experience will be like before they take the job. Pilot Flying J just launched its VR experience in early May. PwC launched on March 7, and Accenture has been using its experience in recruiting efforts since August of 2016.
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These VR applications show applicants exactly what their day-to-day will be like using interactive, immersive experiences – in more than simple 360° video. Recruiters are even bringing high-end VR headsets with them to career fairs and trade shows.
While marketers have long eyed VR as a way to reach consumers on mass levels, savvy sales and business development executives are employing VR on a much smaller, more personal scale.
Since February of this year, the ad sales team at The Weather Channel has taken to traveling with a laptop and VR headsets to agency meetings. VR allows them to offer guided tours of their studios, show off capabilities, and introduce talent – all without having to leave the boardroom. This approach cuts down on scheduling and communication that can hold up advertising agreements.
Similarly, Red Roof Inn uses VR to sell franchises, both at its corporate offices and at trade shows. Before August of 2015, when the company’s VR experience launched, Red Roof Inn had been building sample hotel room set-ups in its trade show booths – at considerable cost. By using a highly portable VR setup instead, the company is able to save thousands on its trade show budgets.
You might not think of a mining company as a pioneer in VR. However, starting in April of 2014, Rio Tinto Kennecott – the largest private economic driver in Utah, and operator of a 114-year-old mine – found a way to use VR to solve a nagging biz-dev challenge. Mining is hazardous work, and on-site tours became too dangerous for the general public. Instead, potential partners, investors, and customers can experience the mine’s operations all from the safety of a conference room.
It’s not just companies that have discovered unexpected benefits in VR. In the medical field, doctors and researchers are working with VR to help manage pain. Startups like Firsthand Technology are creating VR applications to lessen pain. A study published late last year in the journal PLOS ONE showed that VR could be effective in decreasing chronic pain. In the study, participants were asked to rate their pain levels before, during, and immediately following five-minute sessions in a VR environment.
According to the study’s authors, pain recognition dropped by 60 percent during the VR experiences, with a lasting effect in some patients at 33 percent. All participants noted at least some reduction in pain while in the experience itself.
Surgeons too have been exploring ways to reduce patient anxiety with VR. Dr. José Luis Mosso Vazquez, a surgeon in Mexico City, conducted a study of 140 patients in which he found that VR used during surgery could reduce pain and anxiety by 24 percent when compared with a control group.
VR can also be harnessed to help tens of thousands of people when placed in the hands of innovative not-for-profits. The International Rescue Committee, for example, developed an immersive VR film titled “Four Walls,” which invited viewers into the makeshift homes of Syrian refugees living in awful conditions in Lebanon. This VR experience was featured at SXSW 2017 and was the topic of a panel at the conference.
Featuring Emmy-nominated actress/activist Rashida Jones as host and narrator, this documentary-style VR experience drew 30 million visitors from 113 countries, kept viewers in the experience for an average of just over eight minutes and helped drive direct donations to the cause at a 1.5 percent conversion rate. Considering standard and rich media ads (more common means of soliciting support) generate clickthrough rates on average of about 0.14 percent, this can be viewed as quite an improvement.
Similarly, media outlets have begun using VR to fully immerse readers in their reports. The New York Times offers VR experiences like the four-film series “The Antarctica Collection,” which just debuted on May 18. In March, the Times offered “We Who Remain,” which tells stories from the war-torn Nuba Mountains of Sudan. The Guardian newspaper launched “6×9” in April of last year, which showed viewers the inside a of US solitary confinement prison cell. It followed this in November with “Underworld,” a guided tour of London’s Victorian sewers.
Today’s VR hasn’t yet lived up to the early 1990s fantasies of film and TV. But that’s ok. Few people back then considered that the best use of virtual reality might instead be in making newspapers more captivating or global causes easier to understand. Not many imagined that VR could help reduce physical pain. And certainly, few expected that companies would be using it to create stronger workforces. Though not exactly what we imagined, these applications have paved the way for VR to grow, find purpose, and take on a greater role in people’s lives.
Abi Mandelbaum is CEO of YouVisit.
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