Ahead of the Workspace Business Insight dinner on October 6, we talk to some of the British pioneers of virtual reality about how emerging technology could change your business and your life.

Imagine you could train for your next job by putting on a headset. Experience waves crashing while looking at your mobile phone screen. Or walk through the corridors of your office due to be built next year.

Wake up! All of these things are currently possible. And you’ll be able to see it for yourself and talk to some of the people at the forefront of virtual reality (VR) at the Workspace Business Insight Dinner on October 6th.

Though the technology is still emerging, the consequences on our lives are sure to be revolutionary. And the impact on business will be profound too. Admittedly it may take time for virtual reality to be accessible to most enterprises, but the pace of change means it is worth opening our eyes: VR could be with us sooner than we expect.

No two people have the same background ... It has the potential to affect all industries and so requires multiple different skills.

Greg Williamson, Soluis

It is also relevant for a broad range of industries; you just have to consider the background of Greg Williamson, one of our speakers.  He studied architecture; then founded and acted as Managing Director of the Inlightin 3D visualisation studio based at Film City for ten years before it merged with Soluis, which offers design visualisation and digital communication services, in 2014. At recent VR conferences, he's been struck by the fact 'no two people have the same background ... It has the potential to affect all industries and so requires multiple different skills.

Soluis demos

 

The variety of projects Soluis is working on reflects this too. Williamson is particularly enthused by some work they did on the head quarters of a big pharmaceutical company. The clients quickly understood the possibilities of the technology; Soluis is now designing a training programme where they can familiarise future employees with the workings of the lab - which will no longer need to close temporarily. Trainees retain more information. It is quicker and cheaper. It’s also safer.

Williamson sees possibilities in lots of other industries including tourism ('you can plunge people into resorts or cities’) and construction.

 

Williamson sees possibilities in lots of other industries including tourism ('you can plunge people into resorts or cities’) and construction. On the night itself, the team will showcase a recent project where they visualised an indoor sports arena for Barcelona FC. An Oculus headset plugged into a computer, with Soluis's designs, allows board members, architects and fans - as well as the audience at the Workspace Business Insight event - to see what the stadium is going to look like by exploring it themselves.

The indoor sports arena for Barcelona FC

Quite apart from allowing stakeholders to review designs, and helping to fundraise (as sponsors can see where their logos might go), VR could make the actual construction on the stadium safer. Williamson talks about the possibility that builders could possibly receive instructions and information on headsets - rather than fiddling around with mobile phones.

Health and safety is an issue that spurred another speaker on the panel. Jarnail Chudge has worked in design and user experience at Microsoft for 15 years. More recently he’s been working on the Cities Unlocked project - a collaboration between both the Guide Dogs charity and Future Cities Catapult. The project was kick started when a blind colleague at Microsoft and trustee of the Guide Dogs, Amos Miller moved to Reading and found exploring the city with his young daughter difficult. 

It will free us from the tyranny of the smartphone - the experience will be more natural, empowering and fulfilling.

Jarnail Chudge

This led to a two-day workshop, five years ago with managers across the Guide Dogs. Tech wasn't on the agenda; instead they ‘teased out aspirational stories’ and experiences. People wanted to be empowered but mobility was a key challenge. The prototyped headsets are remarkable. They recreate in audio the world around you. If there's an obstacle on the left, you will hear a sound on your left warning you. You will also be able to hear what kind of retail stores you are walking by, what they supply and where they are in relation to you. This tech could be also be used by tourists exploring new cities and those ‘working in noisy environments where you need your hands’ - like builders, mobile engineers etc.

Both speakers stress that these strides in VR are not taking us closer to the apocalypse. And there’s no need for guide dogs to consider a career change. The tech is 'about designing around a person' not replacing things - be they canes, dogs or humans. In fact, Chudge sees ‘the ability to mesh different realities presents a whole range of possibilities and opportunities’. For one, it will improve existing tech: ‘It will free us from the tyranny of the smartphone - the experience will be more natural, empowering and fulfilling.’

Part of the excitement, is that this is all, Chudge says, in its 'infancy'. Training programmes like those Williamson is designing could become more interactive. Foreseeably, you could tag objects with information - trainee pharmaceutical chemists could be warned off the red flask in the drug industry version of Tomb Raider.

The Microsoft prototyped headset

 

Williamson calls the competitive nature of VR innovation an ‘arms race’. Some kit brought last year is almost obsolete. Disruption is a habit. 'With the induction of the games-engine technologies,' Williamson explains,'You can create the same content but port it into a games engine and real-time look at spaces. You can essentially game through an existing or proposed space.’ With traditional methods this can take weeks; now it happens overnight.

The tech ranges from as simple as Google Cardboard - a simple headset (you can build one out of a large pizza box) that your iPhone slots into - to the scaled-up version: the Samsung VR headset powered by Oculus (the technology company which builds the software), which you plug into a computer. A more sophisticated experience would be wearing a headset walking into a VR dome. Or, Google Glass project founder Babak Parviz, has built contact-lens displays. But whatever you’re using, you still won’t be able to feel the weight of things or smell or touch them.

The advance that promises the most for ordinary consumers is Google’s Daydream, which should be announced in October. It’s a successor to Google Cardboard and means that every Android phone will have a VR-ready solution. At the moment, tech is built into the Samsung headset rather than the phone but, within two years, people will be walking around with VR-ready devices in their phone. VR will become less business to business and more consumer facing.

Some of these devices are relatively inexpensive at the point of a few hundred to a couple of thousand pounds but the challenge becomes people skills. Here collaboration accelerates what can be done.

Jarnail Chudge, Microsoft

 

This is partly why projects like Cities Unlocked are happening at Microsoft. Chudge explains that this R&D is a way to ‘look at new tech capabilities with a view to how they can help people do the things that they care about … and have applicability further afield.’ It’s part of building ‘empathy for customers.’

Although VR will undoubtedly have practical consequences very soon, their development reflects change in business culture. Chudge says that while keeping up with change is becoming increasingly challenge, ‘It’s at the intersection of that tension that new innovations, new business models, new opportunities will emerge.’

Google Cardboard

 

New and Growing Companies are pioneering changes in business culture. Chudge says: ‘It’s all too easy to become enamoured of technology but at the expense of the experience of the people you’re designing for; you must understand their emotional needs.’ The consumer comes first.

He also offers clues on how smaller companies, without the resources of say Microsoft, can get involved. ‘Some of these devices are relatively inexpensive at the point of a few hundred to a couple of thousand pounds but the challenge becomes people skills. Here collaboration accelerates what can be done.’ And finally, as any start-up will know: ‘new innovations are all in their infancy. Learn as you go along. Refine. Iterate.'

This technology will soon have an impact on most industries, from tourism to marketing, construction and many more. And it's coming to an eyeball near you.

Workspace customers can sign up for this week’s event here

In addition, if you’re a non-Workspace customer you can win FREE tickets to this week’s event, featuring exclusive virtual reality demos from Microsoft and Soluis Group. Simply tweet your best virtual reality idea for a business using the #VR4Business hashtag to @WorkspaceGroup and we will select the best three responses!