Is VR The Future Of Design?

Nike and Dell are harnessing VR to create mind-blowing design tech


Of all the developments in both augmented reality and virtual reality, the most high profile are in entertainment. Consumer tech allowing people to immerse themselves in movies or video games is only set to become more and more popular as the technology required becomes cheaper and more accessible. Indeed, Statista predicts that gaming alone will make up 48% of the virtual reality software market in 2018. Outside of the consumer market, though, there are companies developing products to fundamentally change how people work.

According to IDC, worldwide revenues for the virtual reality (and augmented reality) market are set to hit $14 billion this year, a number that could balloon to $143 billion by 2020. The companies making investments and acquisitions are diverse, too. Facebook leads in corporate acquisitions (with 11), HTC leads in corporate investments (with 28), and Rothenberg Ventures leads in VC investments (with 32), in a list that includes the likes of Disney, Samsung, Qualcomm, Alphabet, Intel and Deloitte. This spend has skyrocketed the number of augmented and virtual reality jobs posted, with LinkedIn posts tripling and Oculus alone listing as many as 86 in the last month alone.

A survey by PwC found that 38.8% of companies are using AR or VR for product design and development, by far the most common usage over things like safety and manufacturing skills training, virtual assembly/improved process design, and remote collaboration.

The video produced by Nike in conjunction with Dell is somewhat fantastical - the VR/AR technology in use doesn’t actually exist yet, and it does feel a little bit like a vision of the future to watch it. But Nike is hoping that by visualising the potential products in real-time and in the round, designers will be able to bring them to market far more quickly. The technology will combine voice control with AR/VR headsets, as well as haptic technology that would allow the designer to ‘feel’ the product before putting it forward for production.

The technology in question has the potential to fundamentally change design going forward. Currently, design has a number of hurdles that hold many back. From the skills needed to create something, to the time taken to mock up a new invention and have it 3D printed as a prototype, design is not only time consuming but difficult. VR has the potential to give anyone with some technological nouse the ability to create beautiful and intricate things with a wave of their hands.

When the confines of the monitor are made redundant, designers have the ability to not only see anything in any perspective, but also from the perspective of others too. A recent piece by Fast Company’s Mark Wilson explored the notion that designing ‘in other people’s shoes’ - ‘When designers can travel anywhere and be anyone, design changes forever. No longer will creatives be forced to mock up some new invention in a Bay Area cubicle before taking 10 hours to build it in a 3-D printer. They’ll sit on the ground in Africa, or the bottom of the ocean, or the NYC subway car, and use a magical paintbrush to paint the reality they can otherwise only imagine.’

Of all the technology involved in Nike’s project, perhaps the most interesting is the haptic feedback offered by ultrahaptics. The technology allows users to ‘feel’ touch-less buttons and feel feedback from mid-air gestures that don’t require the user to wear or hold anything. In theory, the technology means that designers would be able to feel the textures of the products they’re designing. The technology has a number of potential uses, like removing the need for dials or sliders, bringing games to life and, of course, in design. ‘They’re using this incredible haptic technology which allows them to create a holographic image of what they’re designing and feel the texture of the fabrics as they’re designing,’ said Jeremy Burton, Dell’s EVP and CMO. ‘That gives them a more natural process, and it gives them faster time to market.’

Sarah Burkhart, product manager for Dell Canvas, said: ’The opportunities that this opens up with that evolution towards a more experiential process with the augmented reality using the Meta glasses and the haptics that were displayed in this video using the Ultrahaptics technology really takes you so much closer to a physical product that’s still in a digital environment before you ever get to the production stage.’

The prospect of designers being able to tangibly interact with products in the very early stages of development is exciting, not least because of its ability to bring products to market far more quickly than is currently possible. Nike described its use of augmented reality and haptic technology as an ‘aggressive’ vision of the next step in design tech - let’s hope their own product can hit the market with the same ruthless efficiency that it itself promises. 

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