The internet and social media sphere exploded with the recent news of Facebook’s $2 billion acquisition of Kickstarter-funded virtual reality company Oculus VR. The move signaled a momentous turning point for the gaming industry. (Given the divisive and demonstrative chatter, whether it’s a positive direction or not is up for debate). But perhaps even more significantly, it announces virtual reality’s imminent arrival into mainstream digital life – and according to cognitive psychologist and virtual reality guru Jeremy Bailenson, the implications for business and lifestyle alike are extraordinary.
Virtual reality – the digital simulation of a three-dimensional environment – has long been the stuff of science fiction. The appeal of wearing a headset and being transported to another world has tantalized enthusiasts, largely “gamers” and futurists, for decades. But while consumer versions of the technology likely won’t be available until at least next year, businesses that aren’t yet strategizing ways to capitalize on the immersive experiences that virtual reality will deliver are already behind, says Bailenson, founding director of Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab.
Bailenson, who met with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg just weeks before the Oculus purchase (he also gave the billionaire entrepreneur a copy of his book “Infinite Reality,” a virtual reality primer for undergraduates and novices), believes virtual reality “has the potential to transform education, preventative medicine, and just about every domain imaginable.”
New York Times tech columnist Farhad Manjoo, who also recently visited Bailenson’s lab to test the technology, wrote: “Virtual reality is the natural extension of every major technology we use today – of movies, TV, videoconferencing, the smartphone and the web. It is the ultra-immersive version of all these things, and we’ll use it exactly the same ways – to communicate, to learn, and to entertain ourselves and escape. Dr. Bailenson says that it will even alter how society deals with such weighty issues as gender parity and environmental destruction.”
In just the last few weeks alone, Bailenson has consulted with a bank about how it can be used to compel people to save more for retirement, a weight loss program about how it can help people see the benefits of a diet and inspire them to stay the course, and an insurance company about building safety modules to teach people how to avoid occupational hazards. Virtual reality will definitively change how people think about, purchase and interact with products and services, and the companies behind them.
It’s no longer a question of if – it’s when, and it’s soon. “The technology is coming like a freight train,” Bailenson warns. “It’s moving fast and it’s at your fingertips.”
To hear more of Bailenson’s insights about the future of virtual reality, listen to his recent interview with NPR. His expert commentary has also been featured in various top media following the Facebook/Oculus announcement, including PBS News Hour, Mashable and Fortune, where he helps answer the question, “Is VR really the next big thing?”