The concept of 3D is nothing new. In art, theatre and cinema we have been exploring ways of creating an immersive experience for more than a hundred years. It’s only natural for that journey to continue with the help of technology. But how does it add value to business?

What is VR and AR?

Modern Virtual Reality (VR) has been around as a mainstream technology since the birth of QuickTime VR in 1994, but in more recent years we have also seen the concept of Augmented Reality (AR) emerging. So what is the difference between the two?

In simple terms, Virtual Reality is a computer-generated visual simulation, and Augmented Reality is the ability to view the real world with overlays of digital enhancements.

These two fascinating technologies are astonishingly sophisticated and can be combined into various hybrid models. For example, you could use a VR headset to explore a virtual world in a real space while having AR displays superimposed on your view as well.

So how do these technologies work?

In Virtual Reality, the visual and audio environment can be based on actual video footage or fabricated 3D models, to simulate a real experience. Both AR & VR systems use a “window” to view the digital environment. This could be a computer screen or that of a smartphone or tablet. It’s also possible to use head-mounted eyepieces such as smart glasses (or even a simple holder with a smartphone like Google Cardboard, which uses a smartphone to create a split-screen 3D viewer.)

For a more high-tech option, there is the Oculus Rift, Samsung’s Gear, and the Playstation VR headsets. These provide a 3D view called “full immersion”, as the device follows the wearer’s head position to give them a view in any direction in space.

What’s VR and AR used for?

You could build an interactive 3D simulation of just about anything. The key focus industries have for many years been gaming and entertainment, but actually the medium is ideal for teaching and demonstrations as well as many other practical applications.

VR and AR are of course not just visual. They can use audio for music, voice and sound effects, as well as photography and video – even aromas and tactile perception. It can also implement real-time data like GPS co-ordinates.

VR – where game meets business

There are some obvious cross-overs where the VR gaming world meets real business application. The most famous examples are probably Second Life and Active Worlds; virtual landscapes where people can run real-world businesses that market various services and goods. Second Life’s creators, Linden Labs, are now working on a new successor system called Project Sansar.

Universities and educational organisations quickly became interested in these worlds, and could see the potential to construct educational models and environments which can be shared remotely. Students in all kinds of disciplines are now able to exploit VR tools for everything from art and music to medical modelling and simulations. It is a wonderful teaching tool.

AR in augmented marketing

AR, on the other hand, is more about viewing the real world with superimposed digital elements overlaid on the display. We first saw this concept in films like Terminator and Robocop – but these days it’s a technology being adopted mainly by the retail industry. The idea of using a smartphone to make an advert, a sign or a user manual “come to life” is the driver behind many companies wanting to use QR codes, tags or logos to engage with customers.

But AR can be used for so much more than advertising. Panasonic are currently developing a car windscreen which can display speed and car status, as well as recognise various elements around the car to alert the driver to potential dangers. Some analysts say that this will become the standard car technology of the future. We’re only just scratching the surface!

The opportunities are endless

It’s hard to imagine a business sector that could not benefit from VR or AR. These are just a few examples:

  • Travel companies and hotels: Show potential clients around a resort or allow them to check the view from different rooms.
  • Restaurants: Enhance menus with drop-down lists of ingredients and cooking methods.
  • High street retail: Use shop windows to offer a “point, click and order” service of display items.
  • Decorators: Illustrate what a new colour scheme or carpet might look like.
  • Mechanics: Use AR to explain how to strip down engines.
  • Marketers: Offer a free doughnut as customers pass the logo of their local coffee shop.