Until recently, virtual reality hardware and software were mostly confined to the video gaming market, but this year VR headsets and applications are poised for disruptive growth across all areas of industry. Oculus’ pending release of a consumer-grade Rift headset in early 2016 is just the beginning.

The Microsoft HoloLens, Sony’s Project Morpheus, Samsung’s Gear VR and even Google’s low-tech Cardboard viewer are driving a VR headset market expected to reach $5B by 2018 with an ensuing steep ramp up. These devices are propelling a renaissance in non-game VR applications across an array of businesses including entertainment, design, education, health, multimedia, and many more.

Newest VR/AR Devices from Top Manufacturers

The Oculus Rift is a PC-based VR headset that includes a processor, 2160 x 1200 display, 3D audio and internal sensors. It works in concert with PC software and an IR tracking device that records the headset wearer’s positional movements. It will be the first consumer-level VR device due to arrive in the first quarter of 2016.

Samsung’s Gear VR headset will work with compatible Galaxy devices that provide the system’s display, CPU, sensors and positional tracking. Developer versions have been out since 2014, but a consumer version is still pending.

Project Morpheus from Sony adds VR capability to their PlayStation 4 and PlayStation Vita game systems. Its design is similar to the Rift with built-in processors, display and sensors. Sony says they will release a consumer version in the first half of 2016.sony_hmz_t1_4

Microsoft’s HoloLens AR device provides wearers with projected 3D holographic images of objects overlaid on real surfaces. Interaction with virtual objects is via voice and hand gestures. Microsoft has not set a firm date for release of the HoloLens to consumers, but announced mid-2015 that it would be ready “in a year.”

Expanding Applications for VR/AR Devices

The myriad of uses for virtual reality outside the realm of entertainment could very well come to eclipse VR gaming markets in the years ahead.

In medicine, operating room VR systems help train new surgeons with headsets costing one percent of what researchers paid previously. VR systems are accessing patients’ cognitive functions, releasing people from crippling phobias, treating PTSD and helping amputees quickly gain control of artificial limbs.

NASA uses VR to take astronauts on their first, gravity-free space walks without leaving Earth. ISS astronauts will be testing HoloLens headsets in December to overlay actions and instructions onto complicated control systems and allow notes and diagrams to be drawn directly over their field of view.

The British Museum’s Bronze Age VR room immerses visitors in a Bronze Age household with a flickering, crackling fireplace and virtual ancient objects that visitors can manipulate. Technical trade schools use VR to train students on complex tasks, which they can perform repeatedly without wasting money on expensive materials.

Experts in architecture, interior design, home security and home automation will also be able to use VR to see what buildings will look like and plan accordingly and efficiently to prevent mistakes or overlooked details. Additionally, these industries will also allow professionals to simulate the impact their products have on customer experience. In fact, there is enormous market potential for the use of VR/AR systems in this manner as “empathy machines” in industries as varied as real estate, journalism, psychology and law enforcement training.

As VR/AR devices go mainstream and both the hardware and software advances, new uses far beyond games and entertainment are emerging at an ever-increasing rate. This explosive growth is further fueled by an unusually open and collaborative, cross-company development environment. The ingredients of hardware, software, content and usability seem to be all in place now for VR’s biggest breakthrough. 2016 is looking more and more like VR/AR technology’s inflection point.

 

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