Checking in on virtual reality
Virtual reality has always seemed like one of those technologies that ought to be more prevalent than it actually is. The last Gartner Hype Cycle that I sighted had it well ahead of the pack of other 'emerging technologies', trundling up the 'slope of enlightenment' well on its way to the 'plateau of productivity'.
So what is the reality of VR, what kind of applications are being created? A couple of recent dispatches from New Zealand universities provide an insight.
The University of Auckland Business School has created VR field trips to teach students about construction and leaky homes. The Bachelor of Property students are given Google Cardboard headsets in which they can insert their smartphone and view photos and videos filmed using a 360 degree camera.
Senior Lecturer Michael Rehm says the students will take a virtual tour of the construction site at Parnell Terraces, a former leaky building. Rehm owns an apartment in the complex and chairs the owners' committee, and he has produced the VR tours with the help of his colleague and wife Dr Olga Filippova.
"VR will enable students to virtually experience field trips to active construction sites and other high-risk, complex environments that would be impractical to visit in-person. VR is the next best thing to being there. And they can do it from wherever - their home, a café," he says in the statement about the initiative.
Rehm says VR is also used in so-called "smart buildings", whose hi-tech systems constantly monitor and optimise temperature, humidity, pressure and other variables. "VR can help visualise and manage all that complex information."
"Also, you may notice cameras on building sites. After the leaky building disaster, 360 imagery and VR is being used to record and help keep tabs on expensive, highly complex construction projects."
Rehm is looking at whether VR can be used to market the University's student accommodation to prospective students, enabling them to take a virtual tour of the halls of residence before deciding whether to apply to live there.
Meanwhile, at Massey University PhD candidate Alexander Schnack is using VR as a market research tool. After discovering that people often misreported their buying behaviour he worked with a computer programmer to build a VR system using an existing games engine to find "a different way of observing actual consumer behaviour.
His PhD supervisor Malcolm Wright saw the potential of Schnack's VR system and licensed it to the University's spinout company Consumer Insights. They are now working with international and local clients on providing VR services.
Schnack believes VR offers marketers flexibility at a reasonable cost, "they can test different package designs, changes in price, shelf positioning and labelling, store environment, colours, music and smells. You can also track the path people take through the store with heat maps, and where they spend the most time in terms of shelf positions and product categories."
He also believes that VR will have an impact on online sales. "It will make shopping online an entertainment experience as retailers will be able to offer an immersive retail environment to build their brands."
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