Virtual Reality: A brave new world

Virtual reality is more than a pair of glasses with two monitors. This new technology now offers entirely new perspectives to both companies and consumers.

Virtual Reality: A brave new world
© Photo: getty images

An expedition to the top of Mount Everest in the year 2017 can represent a real strain. Sure, you need to be fit, but you also have to select the right equipment: To begin with, there are the glasses with a stereo monitor that shield you from the outside world. Then of course a headset, a computer with adequate computing power, electricity, manual input devices and a room that is large enough so you won’t bump into anything. By contrast, weatherproof clothing is unnecessary.

With Everest VR, a new software put out by the Icelandic start-up, Sólfar, a climb to the summit from your living room is no longer a problem. Technology sends the user up the highest mountain in the world with high-resolution photos and videos. As true to real-life and as fascinating as if you were really ascending to the roof of the world in the tracks of Sir Edmund Hillary—but without the frostbite and without the droves of recreational alpinists that make their way up to the top every year.

Virtual Reality in your living room

What was pretty much unimaginable just a few years ago, has meanwhile become a photorealistic attraction for almost anyone. Today, virtual reality is no longer a labored game played by a few eccentric technology freaks. Instead, it has almost become a mass phenomenon. According to a study by the digital association, Bitkom, every tenth citizen has already used virtual reality glasses at least once. “The possible applications of this technology are almost unlimited," says Timm Lutter, Division Manager of Consumer Electronics & Digital Media at Bitkom. But let's look at things one at a time.

The desire to see more than is physically present in a room is by no means a new yearning of our times. As early as in the nineteenth century, the Laterna Magica, a kind of early version of the slide projector, was extremely popular. It made it possible to project images of smoke and artificial fog onto the stage in the theaters of Goethe’s time. This was a spectacle that would sometimes genuinely frighten the audience—literally. Thus, the Laterna Magica was often referred to as the "horror lantern."

The possible applications of this technology are almost unlimited. Timm Lutter, Division Manager of Consumer Electronics & Digital Media at Bitkom

Since then, of course, tools and methods have improved considerably. Instead of using a projection of smoke and artificial fog, theaters today use razor-sharp LCD displays. Position and acceleration sensors measure every slightest movement of the head and infrared systems locate the body in space. The result is an almost perfect illusion that surrounds the user so completely that some people still react with fear at their first contact with this technology.

“Anyone using virtual reality glasses for the first time may experience a mild feeling of dizziness, comparable to sea sickness," says Markus Ambrus, CEO of Augmented Minds, a Munich start-up that specializes in apps for extended reality and virtual reality. “Of course, this phenomenon is annoying. But a lot of research directed at minimizing this effect is just being done. For example, experiments are being carried out to project a virtual nose into the field of vision. This makes orientation easier.”

Everyone in the industry is working feverishly to perfect this technology. After all, we are dealing with a very important subject here: “the next-generation computing platform,” as investment banker Goldman Sachs calls it. A market volume of 80 billion dollars worldwide—a business of a size that is comparable to today's market for desktop computers—is forecast for virtual reality by 2025.

The games industry is still the major driver, but the potential applications extend far beyond that. Be it in medicine, architecture, education or industrial manufacture, every user expects immense benefits from virtual reality 3D animation. “In the field of entertainment, the media industry or tourism, virtual reality will create new worlds of experience," says Bitkom expert Lutter.

Sporting goods producers have long since left the stage of merely toying with ideas. adidas, for example, is experimenting with a kind of virtual changing room in which the customer individually configures their new sweater, tries it on and can then have it produced immediately in the local boutique. Bogner is also doing truly pioneering work in this field. The company presented technology developed by the Fraunhofer Institute for Integrated Switches (IIS) known as HolodeckVR at the Ispo Munich 2017 fair. With this technology, it is possible for the first time to not only experience virtual reality alone, but together with around 100 other users that are shown to the user as avatars on more than 40,000 m2 of artificial worlds.

In a revolutionary manner, this new technology enables us to take our visitors and customers along onto a ski slope and give them the feeling of being there live. Ski legend and company owner Willy Bogner

Of course, the major digital corporations are all at the forefront of this development. For example, Project Tango makes it possible today to measure entire rooms in real time—a technology that is tailor-made for carpenters, interior designers and stand builders. Instead of working with plans and 3-D models, they can now use this technology platform to directly place simulations in a virtual room and be able to experience the result before the project has started. And by no means does the development end here. Advances in sensor and simulation technology will also bring the senses of touch and smell into the virtual world in the future and perfect the artificial world to the extent that it can almost no longer be distinguished from the real world.

The experts agree: Virtual reality is more than a short-lived trend. Entirely new fields of business and forms of interaction are already appearing on the basis of this complex technology. Companies and consumers alike are profiting from the development. Even the most notorious technology pessimists have no reason to be afraid. After all, the possibilities offered by this new technology aim, at most, to enrich the real world and not to replace it. There’s no reason for deciding one way or another—the best about both worlds is that they belong together.

By Florian Severin. The article was first published in our Messe München Magazine 01/2017.