What could virtual reality be used for?

Virtual realityand augmented reality have featured prominently in technology news in recent years, with no signs that they're set to disappear from the headlines any time soon.

It's easy to forget that VR is used for much more than just games. In fact, the uses outside of gaming are vast, with many offering the potential to shape society for the better.

So far much of the commentary has focused on VR's appeal to gamers. But could they take off in other sectors too?

Here are just a few sectors where VR could have a huge impact.

Read Next: What is VR? What is AR? Read our handy explainer guide.

Treating anxiety
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Treating anxiety

Researchers at the University of Oxford's Department of Psychiatry have developed a VR programme that can treat fear of heights.

In a randomised controlled trial of the therapy, users wearing an HTC Vive headset were taken to a computer-generated 10-storey building, where a virtual coach guided them through a series of activities, which increased in difficulty the higher they went.

Their phobia was assessed through a Heights Interpretation Questionnaire (HIQ). When the questionnaire was taken four weeks later, 69 percent of the people who had used the VR treatment were deemed to no longer suffer from a fear of heights.

Nottingham Trent University student Gareth Walkom had a similar idea when he developed VR software to help people like him who suffer with speech impediments. His design uses eye-tracking technology within a VR headset to monitor anxiety levels in a range of scenarios and provide feedback on how to improve stress levels.

"For a person who stutters, talking in front of an audience, for instance, can be an intimidating and heart-raising task," said Walkom. "But with the growing availability of virtual reality technology, people could practice exposure therapy in ways previously unavailable to them from the comfort of their own home."

Training

Training

Southampton Solent University’s Warsash Maritime Academy is creating a VR-based training app that will put crews into potentially dangerous situations.

The app will be used with VR headsets and will offer six immersive training case studies which should teach crews how to react in emergency situations.

Supermarket giant Walmart is also using VR for training purposes. The retail chain has partnered with virtual reality startup STRIVR to create experiences of real-world scenarios so its employees can learn the best response in any situation in store.

Attractions and experiences

Attractions and experiences

VR and AR could be used to create totally immersive attractions for theme parks, by adding extra layers of content over real-world experiences.

Falcon's Creative Group - a creative organisation specialising in the design and production of themed experiences - has worked on numerous VR projects including the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Center’s Heroes and Legends attraction.

Other attractions include the 'Irish Otherworld' - which will use VR to create a ride filled with dragons, fairies, and other legendary creatures.

To help paraplegics

To help paraplegics

A study performed by Duke University in 2016 claimed that virtual reality had helped patients suffering from spinal cord injuries in partially restoring their mobility.

The study - initially reported by Nature.com - involved eight patients and took 12 months and 2,052 sessions to complete.

All of the eight patients found they were able to regain some level of recovery including increased muscle gain and limb sensations.

Education

Education

Research from Lenovo found that 94 percent of UK teachers surveyed think VR would benefit students, with almost half estimating it to be a common tool in the next five years.

One example is Google’s 'Expedition', which is designed to allow teachers and students to take immersive VR journeys in the classroom. Google also plans to deliver VR training to teachers to show the many ways the technology can be used.

Some schools in the UK have already begun embedding VR technologies.

Read next: Could virtual reality be the future of training and education?

Tourism
© Visualise

Tourism

Virtual reality could be used to provide guided tours for visitors across different attractions.

Firms are also able to showcase destinations using the immersive technology, which provides customers with a 'try before you buy' service.

An example of an early deployment is Thomas Cook, which partnered with Samsung and VR filmmakers Visualise in 2015 to create a series of short films of selected destinations.

This provided customers of Thomas Cook with the opportunity to trial the experience using Samsung Gear VR headset.

Teaching surgeons

Teaching surgeons

The first ever live-streamed VR surgery took place on a 70-year-old colon cancer patient on 14 April 2016, demonstrating how VR could help to transform health training and education.

Microsoft has placed it mixed reality headset, the Hololens at the forefront of VR/AR within the education sector.

It recently started working with Imperial College London to assist with skin graft surgery during live operations.

The theatre

The theatre

Like museums, VR can enhance the enjoyment and feeling of crowd involvement in the theatre and live art productions.

"The National Theatre has created an innovative form of storytelling that can be experienced in VR, which places visitors in the shoes of somebody else," said VR & AR World programme director, Georgina Wilczek.

"Audiences can enter the wonderful and weird world of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland through the eyes of Alice, or receive an exclusive look at never before seen rehearsal footage from inside The Threepenny Opera rehearsal room," added Wilczek.

The military

The military

VR is already used by a number of militaries around the world to help train personnel for environments that are expensive, dangerous or complex to simulate in other ways.

The UK armed forces use VR to help train soldiers for parachute jumps, for example.

Watching sport
© Microsoft

Watching sport

The NBA became the first sport to allow viewers to use VR headsets last year - however, in 2016 Microsoft got in on the act too.

It provided a demonstration of how its augmented reality headset Hololens could transform how people watch the Super Bowl, with players appearing in the room and the coffee table changed into a football pitch using its visual-layering technology.

We're yet to see the same impact over here in the UK, but it's surely only a matter of time...

Museum exhibitions

Museum exhibitions

The British Museum held its first ever VR exhibit in 2015, allowing visitors to immerse themselves in a Bronze Age house and explore virtual representations of the museum's items.

While it's early days, this could be an increasingly popular way to showcase historical and cultural exhibits.

Mental health

Mental health

One little known fact: VR is one of the primary treatments for post-traumatic stress disorder.

It has also been used to treat phobias, depression and anxiety-related issues.

In space

In space

Virtual reality could be used to control robots in use on Mars.

What's more, at CES 2016, NASA used VR to give people a life-like experience of life on various spacecraft.

Real estate

Real estate

VR could play an increasingly important role in the housing market by making it easier for potential buyers to view properties, by turning their room into a 'showroom' without them having to even leave the house, reducing the need to travel.

Watching films
© samhoudinspirations

Watching films

As VR technology improves, its truly immersive quality makes it ideal as a medium for films.

Top directors are getting on board: both Ridley Scott and Steven Spielberg are understood to be working on top-secret VR films.

Manufacturing
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Manufacturing

VR could have a vast number of applications for manufacturing: from supply chain modelling to helping warehouse workers pick out goods to designing products.

Ford and BAE Systems are both already using VR as part of their operations.

Courtrooms
© Wikimedia/kaihsu

Courtrooms

One little-discussed but intriguing use for VR could be in courtrooms: in particular to let jurors explore 3D reconstructions of events and crime scenes to help them better understand evidence.

Advertising

Advertising

Earlier this year Virgin Media claimed it was the first UK brand to use VR to place people directly into the middle of a TV advert - for its 'Vivid House Party' ad.

It let viewers experience the party in 360-degree vision and change the course of what happens.

Retail

Retail

Retailers are keen to find out whether VR could help boost sales: from areas as eclectic as fashion, cars or selling boats.

Audi is using VR to allow customers to experience new car interiors while VR could open up access to top-flight fashion events, letting you watch a catwalk from your own home or create a virtual fitting room for you to try out clothes.

Copyright © 2018 IDG Communications, Inc.