In the winter of 1982, my father brought home our first computer, a BBC Model B microcomputer. The BBC Micro was a basic 8 bit machine running a 2 MHz 6502 processor with 4 channel sound and the ability to output 8 colour graphics at a dismal resolution. By today’s standards, it’s awful. But in 1982 it was mind-blowing. As the name suggests, the BBC micro was commissioned by the BBC as a learning tool and it even got its own TV show. More importantly, it was rolled-out across most schools in the UK as part of a digital education programme. The BBC Micro pioneered a lot of things, both technical and cultural.
Inevitably, its popularity waned. One of the big reasons? It failed to meet the expectations of the working world. While it was great for learning and understanding computers, it had very little to offer in the way of spreadsheets and word processors. When the PC/Mac came along with all of these wonderful things, adoption rates shot up, and soon there was a PC in almost every office and household. New technology is driven by adoption, adoption is driven by big business. Until that journey from rags to riches is undertaken, tech will often sit in a world of obscurity, becoming yet another artifact of failed innovation.
That brings me to the subject of VR, a technology that’s been around for almost a quarter of a century. Why has it taken so long to gain traction? Where is the rags to riches story? Is it just a gimmick? Things are starting to change from a sales POV. Sony’s answer, the PSVR, has enjoyed some popularity. Facebook’s Oculus range has also seen a significant rise in sales (especially with the release of the Oculus Quest 2). Unfortunately, both these headsets are still sitting firmly in the realm of the ‘experience’ (read: gamer), so how useful are they as an office productivity tool. The answer is, they’re not. Not yet.
What has stood in the way? Portability for one thing. VR headsets plug into big, powerful computers so that video games can have a very deep sense of realism. Because there’s been such a heavy focus on gaming, there has been very little thought given to standalone units. That has changed and there are several options available for those of us that don’t have the big, expensive consoles and PCs. But it also means that an office environment won’t need a ton of extra gear lying around to unlock the power of VR.
I think the biggest issue right now is imagination. There are many updates and peripherals that seek to replicate the office experience in the VR space. Physical keyboards that magically appear on virtual desks are one such product. Virtual offices are a great idea. You can have as many screens as you like, you can set up your office in any virtual location, from the beaches of Rio to the Swiss Alps. But what is the point? How is that innovation? On the job training has been pushed as another ‘killer feature’. Once again, not particularly interesting and would unlikely be the big driver adoption.
An example of true innovation would be creating virtual workspaces where team members can collaborate on products in a single, interactive ‘playroom’. Need to build an activation stand for a product? Workshop it with your team in a collab space. Create the experience virtually, add ideas, sketch out collateral, and experience it as the consumer would before it even goes into production. We could be creating massive, fully interactive ideation spaces that shift from idea to prototype to production in one space, with one team. Everything from building code to planning logistics to creating better experiences would go from being an endless stream of emails and powerpoint documents to a single, virtual space. The days of endless emails would disappear.
The same principle could work for the consumer. Imagine purchasing furniture by bringing virtual couches into a virtual representation of your lounge. Imagine trying out your next big screen TV in the comfort of your home before ordering. Imagine following along while a virtual chef shows you how to make an amazing dish before you’ve even ordered the ingredients.
Will this happen? What does it mean for you? If history is anything to go by (and it always is), as soon as VR gets adopted by big business, it’s going to be a big thing. The way the new headsets are going and the updates that are currently being rolled out, we’re going to see that kind of adoption in the next three to five years. Right now, keep an eye out, because mass consumer adoption will mean a fundamental change in how people shop for things. You might want to be prepared for that.
*This article originally appeared on Retailing Africa
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