How Virtual Reality is finally starting to be useful for businesses

Yes, virtual reality and holograms are buzzy, but they are changing the ways companies work—and creating a whole new support industry, too.

People wearing VR headsets

(Mike Nelson/CP)

Immersive technology is having its moment. After decades of gestation, the catch-all term to describe virtual and augmented reality (VR and AR) has finally gone mainstream. In November, Google previewed a VR headset that people actually seem to like wearing. And it’s hard to find a 3D film or video game experience that doesn’t have an immersive element. In short, people are now comfortable with the idea of interacting as pixels, and it is changing the way they want to work.

That’s promising news for companies keen to use the technology both as a nifty show of bleeding-edge clout and as a bona fide way to boost productivity. And it’s creating huge opportunities for the businesses that install, support and modify the tools that make the magic happen.

Take Accenture, where CEO Pierre Nanterme has taken to using holographic technology—a form of augmented reality—to digitally beam himself into meetings and conferences. Yes, it cuts down on Nanterme’s travel budget, but it also positions the global tech consultancy as a forward-thinking outfit to both clients and potential hires. “The hologram is a bit demonstrative,” says Steve Convey, Accenture’s technology lead for Canada. “Are we getting value out of that today? Not really, but we are showing that we’re on the cutting edge of something that can transform business.”

Convey says that transformation will come from giving employees access to experts remotely—not simply for meetings, but for problem-solving. “Imagine a paramedic responding to an emergency,” he says. “Doctors with specific skills can help provide care or decisions to that emergency responder through AR.” Likewise, technicians working in remote locations—on an oil rig, say, or in an aircraft—can call on distant experts for help with repairs.

And then there’s professional development. “Training in a virtual world can be as good as on a real piece of equipment,” says Brian Blau, a San Francisco–based research vice-president at Gartner who specializes in immersive tech. In some scenarios, simulated training is superior to the real thing: Not only does it eliminate the risk of accidents in high-risk jobs, it has been proven to shorten instruction periods and increase people’s abilities to remember what they learn. Those who take part in simulated surgical training, for example, retain as much as 80% of what they learned a year later, compared to 20% among people who are taught in traditional ways.

While many of the VR and AR technologies that support this kind of activity are still nascent, that’s changing quickly. According to a recent report from the International Data Corp., the immersive tech space is poised to generate US$162 billion in revenue by 2020, up from US$5.2 billion today. With so much activity happening, Tony Bevilacqua, a former gaming entrepreneur, saw an opportunity—not to develop immersive tech, but to support it. “I’d go to the trade shows and see insane demos of all these virtual reality prototypes,” says Bevilacqua. “It was really clear to me that there was going to be a significant gap in how people understand and measure these experiences.”

Bevilacqua founded cognitiveVR, a Vancouver-based company that provides early stage immersive tech companies with analytics and insights to help optimize their product. “We look at how customers are moving through the applications, how they engage with the application, and their levels of compliance,” says Bevilacqua, whose customers are building applications for gaming and entertainment applications, yes, but also for health care, real estate and architecture. Some clients already have products on the market, including Osso VR, which makes a medical training device.

Recent investments into the sector suggest a very bright future for companies like cognitiveVR. More than US$3.5 billion in venture capital has gone to immersive tech firms since 2014—and it’s not all going to fund gimmicky video games. “Two years ago, everything was a prototype. It was about trying to show off what the technology can do. And that was great, but now we’re seeing the industry shift to a business viable technology stage,” explains Robert Merki, Bevilacqua’s colleague and the director of product at cognitiveVR. “2017 is going to be a huge year for VR and AR.”