Remember the hype generated when online virtual world gaming platform Second Life was launched in the early noughties?
Users were able to become 'residents' in this new digital community and create 3D-based content, including virtual representations of themselves with avatar personas. From interacting with other avatar citizens to spending virtual currency in the form of linden dollars, it was new territory that proved to be compelling and compulsive for the millions of gamers who signed up.
You may question what it achieved beyond a bit of escapism and entertainment, but the answer is quite a lot. This ability to harness virtual reality (VR) to bring multiple players together remotely in a live, immersive and interactive environment has had a much broader legacy. It has, in fact, inspired a host of imitations which are now reaping dividends in the world of business, as this technology cements its place as a key facet of the broader digital transformation agenda.
Sectors as diverse as defense, engineering and manufacturing, healthcare, mining and satellite communication are seeing the value to be gained from deploying platforms which can simulate and gamify the physical world. Already they are reaping the rewards of enhanced business-critical applications, with particular success in improving how employees learn and practice their skills.
It's a traction contributing to a market which experts predict will be worth $6.4bn by 2021, as the new breed of more sophisticated platforms enable content creators to upload their own experiences from anywhere in the world and create a shared virtual environment. As always, the devil is in the detail, and the latest incarnations can execute these alternative realities with accuracy, and to scale, and incorporate realistic sound tracks as well as the convenience of being stored in the cloud on completion.
An even deeper value emerges when the technology is harnessed to replicate the type of situation, which in the real world can be both costly and challenging for employees to train and practice in. Think of the expense and logistical complexity around naval defense training involving submarines and other expensive live equipment, for example. Replacing this with the virtual world to create a 3D submarine control room with working displays, boat operators and multiple interaction points becomes a cost-effective way of linking up participants that may span the globe. Such an environment is optimal to hone skills with minimal cost, all by voice and visual representations.
And it's all a logical progression; as technology drives social and cultural change, training content and approaches must keep up with shifting generational attitudes and expectations. The long-term future of fixed workspaces must be in doubt as we all become increasingly wired to expect flexibility and to learn wherever and whenever is convenient.
What becomes evident is that technology can vastly improve the quality of learning by tailoring courses to students' individual competencies and circumstances, much of which stems from perhaps VR's greatest strength: The ability to focus the user's entire field of vision and concentrate exclusively on the objective. Once the headset is on, it becomes very difficult to think about anything else – your senses are flooded, and you are in the moment. It's why it presents such a powerful tool to incorporate into other ways of working in the enterprise, notably data analysis.
Bringing data sets to life, and interpreting vast quantities of intelligence, remains a challenge that can thwart the most ambitious enterprise. Yet data visualization tools have proven to be a game changer in helping the non-expert interpret data, without necessarily the benefit of computer science credentials, as information is displayed in graphical formats.
Adding a more immersive VR element to the mix builds significantly on this progress – not only for greater interaction and enhanced pattern recognition, but in driving collaboration around data exploration and interpretation. As colleagues are able to meet remotely inside the same virtual space and collaborate on real-time analysis, we start to have the dream approach for gaining the most meaningful and actionable insight.