In a psychologist’s office in suburban Long Island, a patient is taking on a relatively common task: confronting her fear of spiders with the help of a trained professional. But she’s not lying on a couch recounting traumatic experiences of years past. Instead, Dr. Howard Gurr is guiding his patient through the very unorthodox approach of putting on a headset that overlays spiders crawling around the actual room.
Dr. Gurr is one of a handful of psychologists and therapists in the United States working in the emerging field of virtual reality therapy. VR therapy uses virtual and augmented reality technology tools to treat patients’ phobias and other psychological issues. According to Gurr, “It’s the most obvious way to [tackle] psychological issues like phobias and fears,” and helps many patients when combined with conventional counseling.
“I was drawn to [VR therapy] because of my work with execs who do public speaking,” Dr. Gurr says. “In traditional therapy, there’s no way to get groups of people to sit in the office with you so the only way to do that is to imagine that you’re in an auditorium speaking to a bunch of people. It’s impossible to have people hold on to these images, especially when they’re fear images because they’re scary to you. In virtual therapy, I provide the audience and the patient no longer has to rely on their imagination.”
Psychology is just one area where virtual reality and augmented reality have found unexpected applications. These new technologies are showing up everywhere from the factory floor to professional sports to architecture, and offering new artistic and commercial opportunities that would never have existed before.
The two closely related technologies both involve fooling the viewer’s senses into immersion—or presence—in a reality that is not physically there. While the origins of both lie in the video gaming realm, they’re about to transform a wide array of industries for consumers and enterprise users.
In 2016, augmented reality enjoyed its first burst of mainstream popularity when Pokémon Go became the most popular mobile game in the United States. Users downloading the mobile game unwittingly taught themselves how to use the technology.
And AR has already existed on a continuum in the advertising world for years; every time you watch a televised sports match and see a sponsor’s advertisement digitally added to the stadium, or use a Snapchat filter that turns your face into an animation, you have augmented reality to thank.
Devices such as Google Glass, the upcoming Magic Leap, and Microsoft’s HoloLens use various techniques to overlay virtual objects into a user’s field of vision. Examples include everything from automotive windshields that display speed and GPS data to headsets that make a viewer’s favorite movie star magically appear sipping a coffee on their sofa.
“There’s a relationship with the real world that’s very interesting with augmented reality,” says Nick Law, Vice Chairman, Global Chief Creative Officer, R/GA. “It creates ways for you to be instructive and demonstrate certain things. You can enable behavior as opposed to make people feel something.”
At the other end of the spectrum are VR headsets like the Samsung Gear, the Oculus Rift, and the HTC Vive, through which users enter virtual worlds where they see and hear things that aren’t there. Games, movies, training simulations, therapy, art creation, and renderings of physical environments such as homes and streetscapes are just a few examples of current virtual environments available through these headsets.
“Virtual reality is transporting people to different worlds and different experiences,” says Tony Bevilacqua, Founder and CEO of the Vancouver-based analytics firm cognitiveVR. “You are making sure they are really there. Being involved in an immersive world and being a first-party participant in an experience are the big differentiators.”
Riding a Wave of the Future
At the recent VRLA Summer Expo in Los Angeles, over 6,000 attendees roamed the Los Angeles Convention Center to see how virtual reality is intersecting with Hollywood and the videogame industry. Guests could see everything from a silent VR rave presented by Skullcandy and TheWaveVR, where a headset-wearing DJ used software to generate VR accompaniments to her beats, to Mindride’s Airflow VR, a “Hollywood-grade stunt harness” that uses VR technology to simulate flying through the air. But just down the hall, past the demos, was the interesting thing: a host of vendors offering services for everything from rendering objects in virtual worlds to creating 3D sound environments.
Because virtual reality and augmented reality require significant amounts of computing power, adoption on a mass scale has not yet taken place. However, exciting use cases are being studied—like Microsoft’s research into the feasibility of watching football games in 3D and Samsung’s rollout of the Gear 360 camera, which allows users to create their own VR content. We might know augmented reality best these days through Pokémon Go and virtual reality through videogames and films for platforms like the Oculus Rift and Samsung Gear, but both technologies go much further.
Today, interest in the two is big business. According to a 2016 Goldman Sachs report, $3.5 billion in venture capital was invested in VR and AR startups in 2015 and 2014. These numbers don’t even include the $2 billion Facebook paid to acquire Oculus in 2014.
Goldman Sachs Research’s Heather Bellini estimates VR and AR will be an $80 billion market by 2025, or roughly the size of today’s desktop PC market.
In a video presentation, Bellini added: “While today virtual reality is primarily thought of as a place for hardcore gamers to spend their spare time, it’s increasingly impacting sectors that people touch every day. For example, in real estate, instead of having to go see 50 homes with an agent over the weekend, you might be able to put on a pair of VR glasses or a head-mounted display at your realtor’s office and do a virtual walkthrough of what those properties might look like, and therefore maybe you could eliminate 30 out of the 50 properties on your list and be much more efficient with your time.”
Dr. Gurr traces his interest in the use of virtual reality for therapy to the breakthrough work of USC’s Skip Rizzo, who pioneered the use of VR in the assessment and treatment of psychological, cognitive, and motor functioning in both healthy and clinical populations, including the use of VR exposure therapy to treat PTSD.
“I think it’s the wave of the future, and a turnaround tool for psychologists,” Gurr says. “Virtual reality will speed up the therapy process for people who have phobias, incredibly, because it taps into where the real problem is. People can talk in therapy sessions forever, but talking about phobias does nothing. Phobias sometimes hit people for no reason whatsoever, but they take on a life of their own and generalize.” By using virtual reality, Gurr is able to directly and effectively treat patient fears.
But these technologies are still in their infancy. Neither the HTC Vive nor the Oculus Rift has become a hit consumer product yet, given their price points (approximately $800 for a Vive headset alone and $600 per Oculus headset) and the requirement that users already have an expensive and powerful home computer to plug the headset into. But according to a 2016 Forrester Research report, 52 million units of VR head-mounted displays will be in use domestically in enterprise and consumer settings by 2020. And investments in startups like Magic Leap, MindMaze, and Blippar indicate the space is promising in the here and now.
TechCrunch, the popular tech blog, sees huge long-term growth for investment in VR and AR, but notes there are structural challenges. According to Tim Merel of Eyetouch Reality, 2018 is expected to be an “inflection point” thanks to increases in smartphone battery life making AR more viable. Meanwhile, entrepreneurs and hackers are already experimenting with use cases for augmented and virtual reality in a host of different industries.
High (Tech) Fashion
The fashion industry, which has always been more tech-forward than others (think of the early adoption of digital watches and synthetic fabrics), is finding intriguing ways to integrate virtual and augmented reality into clothing. Normals, a Paris-based design studio, wanted to see how clothing could interact with technology “at the intersection of design and fiction.” In the process, they created an amazing proof of concept—an iPhone app called Apparel that interacts with the shirts around it.
If a user opens Apparel when someone nearby is wearing a custom shirt, the app creates augmented reality accessories for the shirt. The accessories tie into a science fiction world Normals created called Trudent, where residents constantly argue over inconsequential and not-so-real things.
Perhaps more grounded in reality, Nike has hinted at its own fascinating proof of concept for augmented reality. In early 2016, the sneaker and sportswear giant received a patent for an AR clothing design system that allows a user wearing a head-mounted display to modify real articles of clothing with virtual overlays. (According to Jamie Feltham of tech blog UploadVR, Nike first filed for the patent in 2014.) Wearers can create their own logos and select from options such as adding dots or doodling designs on shorts and shirts. If the company chooses to act on the patent, it could create an AR version of its popular NIKEiD product, which lets wearers design their own clothes over the internet.
Collaborative Virtual Design
For architects and interior designers, virtual reality and augmented reality offer exciting new possibilities for presenting their vision on a whole new canvas.
When architecture firm NBBJ began work on designs for Samsung’s new Silicon Valley campus, one of the first tasks the architects faced was conveying renderings and floor plans in an engaging way. They also needed an environment that enabled real-time communication on progress and feedback, an aspect of design that typically takes days and weeks of emails back and forth. So NBBJ teamed up with startup Virtual Vocal to create a collaborative VR platform for architects. The platform, which is still under development, allows clients and architects to pin notes and comments directly onto virtual mockups.
Visual Vocal and NBBJ are now incubating the new VR platform as a replacement for using 3D modeling software for renderings of buildings. Both companies hope to eventually use the VR framework for projects in other areas that make heavy use of 3D models, such as aerospace, product design, and biotech.
A slew of startups are also working on everything from helping big-box companies create VR walkthroughs of in-development real estate projects, to re-creations of high-end residential real estate for potential buyers thousands of miles away. When utility moves beyond one user in one place, the potential for VR and AR to bridge users around the world, online and offline, starts to become more clear.
Automakers and auto industry companies have a vested interest in finding safer ways to show data to users—which, in many cases, means beaming it onto the windshield instead of onto a smartphone.
If a recent patent filing is any indication, Toyota is giving serious thought to augmented reality windshields. Traditional dashboard-based information such as GPS maps and speed will appear directly on the glass. The technology goes one step further by interacting with a series of cameras and sensors to analyze steering angle and speed, lane markings on the road, and the driver’s viewpoint, in order to adjust the display on the windshield so it’s in the safest possible spot for the driver.
Hyundai is experimenting with augmented reality car manuals for owners of Hyundai Sonatas. The Hyundai Virtual Guide works on an ingenious principle: Point your iPhone or iPad at any part of your car, and information will instantly pop up on the screen about the part you’re looking at. The manufacturing world has also started embracing these types of manuals.
GE, one of the world’s largest manufacturers of industrial equipment for a wide range of industries, needs to simplify expensive, complicated products for its customers. So the company is looking at augmented reality as a way to teach workers about the machinery they will need to operate.
A recent article featured on the technology news site Ars Technica described how engineers at the GE Research Center in Brazil are working on augmented reality for offshore oil and gas platforms. According to Ars Technica’s Lee Hutchinson, “This is going to be a lot more important going forward, because GE wants to eventually transition the current tablet-based app into a head-mounted display, moving from tablet augmented reality to actual in-your-field-of-view augmented reality.” By using special headsets, field engineers can see information overlays as they look at machinery. The new technology not only saves precious time; it creates safer working conditions in dangerous areas by making sure the field engineers keep their heads up and their hands free.
Companies here in the United States are working on similar projects. Los Angeles-based Daqri, for instance, is developing an augmented reality helmet for construction or factory workers that displays stored information such as work flow or real-time instructions from coworkers outside their field of vision.
A New Reality
Over the next five years, price points on AR and VR products are expected to drop significantly, leading to the rise of many new mixed reality opportunities in enterprise settings. The military, for one, is looking at new ways to treat veterans using VR environments as Dr. Gurr described.
“The next step is putting live avatars in the virtual environment,” says Gurr. “The military is working on helping soldiers with PTSD where they offer environments for those returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. People can’t get to some of these VA clinics, but what if you put on a headset and have a virtual session with a therapist somewhere else that is real, and the patients sense they’re talking to somebody as opposed to a computer?”
Because many early use cases for augmented and virtual reality products center around gaming and entertainment, enterprise and business applications have played second fiddle. But as the future starts to take shape, a world of virtual experiences will be not only readily available, but remarkably useful in medicine and beyond.
Says Gurr: “Depending on who you talk to VR therapy has a 90% improvement rate for phobia patients which you don’t find in conventional therapy at all. This is the gold standard.”
Neal Ungerleider is a Los Angeles-based journalist and consultant featured in Fast Company, Wired, and several other publications.