OculusThe concept of virtual reality (VR) has been around for a long time and has been implemented, with varying degrees of success, in the gaming world. It’s a favorite subject of sci-fi writers and as an avid reader, I immersed myself in Tad Williams’ Otherland, a late 21st century world where VR simulations get frighteningly real, the VR-based computer interface used by the geeks in Tom Clancy’s Net Force, and myriad other novels and movies that illustrate the potential benefits and dangers of fully developed VR technology.

Somehow, though, in real life, we’ve lagged behind in bringing VR’s promises to fruition. Second Life, an ambitious early attempt to create a complex virtual world, is over 10 years old but never really caught on with the mainstream due to technical, legal and economic issues. The recent purchase of VR company Oculus by Facebook has, along with stirring up a great deal of controversy, catapulted VR back to the forefront of tech industry news. Will Zuckerberg and crew be the ones who succeed in finally taking VR to the masses? And if they do, what are the implications for business users?

The purpose of VR is to create a simulated environment that can make you feel as if you’re actually present in a different location, either in the real world or in a fantasy land that exists only in the bits and bytes of a computer program – and in your own mind. The degree of immersiveness can vary, depending on the technology used. At one end of the spectrum is the quasi-reality experienced when watching an interactive movie on a large screen in a darkened room. Surround sound, surround screens such as iMax, and 3D take the watcher a little further into the experience.

More sophisticated VR uses stereoscopic headsets through which the viewer’s perception is such that he/she is in the middle of the action, and may include sensory input other than visual and auditory – tactile (through haptic feedback) and even olfactory (an advanced form of “smell-o-vision”). With head-tracking, you get a different view by turning your head or looking up or down so that you feel as if you’re on the scene, not just watching it from outside.

VR in its simpler form is already commonly used in business, in telepresence systems that take video conferencing to a higher level. Telepresence solutions are offered by a number of major players, including HP’s Halo, Polycom’s RealPresence, Cisco’s Telepresence and AT&T’s Telepresence Solution. More innovative implementations are in the works; for example, Microsoft Research’s Mesa project is aimed at providing a realistic physical “body double” for remote workers.

Videoconferencing telepresence allows companies to save money by reducing travel expenses for face-to-face meetings while allowing meeting attendees to still benefit from many of the advantages of physical presence, such as the ability to read the facial expressions and body language of others. Unfortunately, the tech is not yet developed to the point where remote participants can taste the goodies provided to their on-premises counterparts at luncheon meetings.

One of the most useful applications of VR in business is as a training tool. Flight simulators have been used to train pilots for decades, dating back to the early 20th century. The military uses fully immersive VR suits with head-mounted displays for combat training. VR is used to train surgeons and other medical personnel in hospital programs so they can perfect techniques before performing them on real patients. Way back in the 1990s when I was teaching at the police academy, we trained recruits in use of force using a rudimentary form of VR that presented typical scenarios an officer might encounter and letting them gain experience in making split-second “shoot/don’t shoot” decisions in a simulated environment. Driving simulators are now used in some driver’s education programs before putting student drivers behind the wheel on the public roadways.

That’s where we are today, but what’s the future of VR? The founders of Oculus took a lot of flak for “selling out” to Facebook, but their position is that this is fastest and best way to bring the technology to a wider audience. While the focus is now on games, it’s hard to imagine that the scope won’t expand as people get more exposure to VR in a social networking environment.

When you think about it, we’re already living in a virtual world much of the time; albeit a flat one. Through our computers, tablets and cell phones, we “go to” web sites, “hang out” or have “face time” with others, and some of us spend hours every day engaging in virtualized discussions with friends we’ve never met in real life. VR is just a way of making that a richer experience – much the same way graphics, then video and interactivity made the web a richer experience than the text-based venue it was in the beginning.

Mobile computing gave us the means to take those virtual worlds with us wherever we go. Wearable computing, especially technology such as Google Glass that overlays information from the virtual world directly on top of the real world, takes us deeper.  It’s inevitable that the kind of “augmented reality” offered by Glass will eventually converge with full-blown VR. This may be what Facebook has in mind, incorporating social networking into our everyday lives to an even greater degree.

At the same time, businesses that once shunned social networking are now embracing it as a marketing tool. A more “real” social networking experience will allow those companies to push their products in new and different ways. Customers will be able to test-drive new cars without leaving their homes. Travel agents can give clients realistic sneak previews of vacation sites to entice them into booking. Restaurants won’t have to rely on just words and pictures to convey the romantic, hip or homey atmospheres of their establishments.

There’s little doubt that VR is the future of computer interfaces. Microsoft has headed in that direction with Kinect. Sony, with their Project Morpheus, is developing a VR headset to compete with Oculus. While all of these are gaming-centric at the moment, they may very well be setting the stage for a brave new virtual world where we’ll one day work, play and live much of our lives. We do, indeed, live in interesting times.