Why the greatest potential of virtual reality lies in business – and why not acting now could mean getting left behind

Dave Tansley
Virtual reality could fundamentally change the way we work (Source: Getty)

We're only a quarter of the way through the year, and it’s already clear that the rise of virtual reality (VR) is one of the most talked about trends of 2016. Research from Deloitte shows that, while the technology may still be in the early stages of its commercialisation and development, it has reached a pivotal point.

We predict that the virtual reality market could enjoy its first billion dollar year in 2016, expecting to sell roughly 2.5m headsets and 10m games. This suggests a niche but growing market in the short term.

And there has been much hype about the technology in the consumer market, particularly within the realms of entertainment and gaming. But we believe that the real story in the coming months will be around how businesses adopt VR technology to service their needs and those of their customers. Long the objects of science fiction fascination, the revolutionary potential of VR lies in enterprise, with an ability to fundamentally change the way we work.

Business through a different lens

People underestimate how VR could be used by business. Perhaps the most obvious applications would be for consumer-facing brands, enabling them to give a remote customer a detailed idea of what a physical space or product looks like. For example, hotel and travel operators can act as a virtual concierge to show resorts to customers, helping them make a decision on holidays. And vehicle dealers can give detailed tours of the interior and exterior of cars without having a model in the showroom.

But VR can also be used in a range of other sectors. Real-estate firms could give prospective commercial property buyers tours of office space on the other side of the world. And architects could develop virtual reality experiences to show construction firms their end visions.

VR can also revolutionise employee training, particularly to improve safety. Oil refineries can use the technology to test how their employees respond to a serious crisis in a virtual scenario. The healthcare industry could simulate surgical training for doctors wanting to hone their skills. Even office-based employees could benefit from the immersive experience. Deloitte Digital has developed a prototype for compliance and risk training to show its clients how VR can offer engaging learning scenarios, even for stereotypically mundane processes.

The reality for organisations

While the consumer world waits for the dominant VR players to emerge, UK businesses can fast-track adoption. Some may think that VR reeks of “shiny object syndrome”, but its underlying promise is exceptionally grounded.

Of course, it might not be for everyone (including for health reasons), but for many, VR is engaging and consistent. It provides immersive simulated environments that help model complex, potentially unsafe situations that are often unfeasible or too costly to explore in real life. It has the ability to help organisations attract customers, clients, partners and employees, with the potential to impact the bottom line and drive shareholder value.

With the cost of the technology decreasing, British companies that are willing to make the most of this disruptive technology have a chance to drive real innovation in their businesses. Those that don’t even explore its possibilities risk being left behind when the technology inevitably becomes mainstream.