How can businesses reap the benefits of virtual reality?

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How can businesses reap the benefits of virtual reality?

Technology industry analysts and innovators say businesses stand to reap big benefits from virtual reality. But how?

Interest in virtual reality (VR) is exploding as manufacturers bring down the cost of VR headsets and visionaries explore the business relevance and potential revenue-generating power of this emerging technology.

AR and VR overlap with many other technology categories, like biotech, video and gaming, for example. And, that cross-pollination category list is expected to grow in the coming years, expanding business opportunities across technology.

Yes, VR headsets are very cool. But many VR industry insiders say hardware isn't the only place that innovation will take place. Most envision rapid advancements to underlying technologies that drive VR experiences, along with demand for new applications, content and accessories.

For companies, figuring out how VR can be used to drive revenue — now and in the future — is a task that should be taken up sooner rather than later. Here are just five of the many ways VR makes sense for business.

1. Revolutionize the "try before you buy" concept.

If your company manufactures and sells products, your world is about to dramatically change. VR enables businesses to promote products in an entirely new way. Here's a great example: In select U.S. markets, Lowe's Home Improvement customers can design their perfect bathroom or kitchen and then, using VR, walk into the finished space and experience it — as a test drive.

Powered by AR/VR application company Marxent’s Visual Commerce application, Lowe's Holoroom customers work with a trained sales associate to make selections from thousands of SKUs — from paint and flooring to plumbing fixtures and appliances. According to Marxent, these products are added to the design as virtual 3D objects. Once satisfied, the customer dons an Oculus Rift headset to experience the space they've designed and make any needed refinements.

Customers can share the designed room with others by exporting it to YouTube 360 and can view it at home with a Lowe's-supplied Google Cardboard. Cardboard is a super low-cost headset ($15) to which a compatible, VR enabled mobile phone is attached to deliver the VR experience. To bring their virtual design to life in the real world, the customer orders the products and services they've already experienced in the store's Holoroom.

2. Introduce established products to new audiences.

VR experiences are a natural extension to the video gaming industry. But as VR becomes more mainstream, gaming companies can expand their markets by introducing products to new audiences. With specialized accessories, VR-enabled games won't require mastery of complicated and sometimes confusing controllers.

With VR motion capture gloves, playing a VR-enabled game can be as easy as a turn of the head or reaching out with a foot or hand and touching something in the environment. International motion capture technology innovator Noitom introduced its Hi5 VR Glove at the 2017 CES. The glove tracks users' hand motions and allows players to interact with virtual objects and use their own hands to perform actions such as grabbing, throwing, stacking and drawing in virtual environment. It's Noitom's first consumer product. 

3. Promote tourism as a virtual experience.

Sure, you could watch a film about a place or Skype your way across Europe with the help of a friend. But other than actually being there, nothing could be better than shutting out the real world and fully experiencing a place with VR. Antarctica too cold, too expensive or too far away? Take a VR trip instead.

"Wild Within" is a VR experience that promotes tourism in Canada's British Columbia. Viewers travel through a rainforest using their choice of two paths — the coastline or up a mountain. Launched by Destination BC and first developed for the Oculus Rift VR headset on a desktop, "Wild Within" is now available as a mobile VR app for iOS and Android.

With such VR gear as Taclim VR boots from Cerevo, virtual tourists could soon take a stroll on a beach and actually feel sandy terrain beneath their feet. Other aspects of the virtual environment, like the effect of ocean breezes and the sound of waves breaking and shorebirds, could heighten the experience.

Add a VR hotel or resort tour and a virtual visit to a nearby coastal restaurant and it might seal the deal for a vacation booking — or a vacation home purchase.

4. Expand education and training programs.

During the past several years, eLearning has helped prepare students for jobs in many industries. But where these programs can fall flat is training for jobs that demand hands on learning. VR can bridge that gap with immersive learning simulations.

Houston based Training Center of Air Conditioning and Heating announced an agreement with Brown Technical Media to deliver a VR experience to train students for the air conditioning and heating trade. With the aim of reaching a larger trainee population, Brown will create a variety of HVAC eLearning products including a full technician course that includes the simulation of the hands on experience of an HVAC lab and physical school.

In a Jan. 5, 2017 news release, Brown stated that disrupting decades-old training methods through the use of virtual reality environments could impact the technical training fields in the same way as VR has changed training in medical, healthcare, science and engineering professions. Brown also said Goldman Sachs predicted that the market for VR experience software could reach $35 billion by 2025.

5. Disrupt traditional sales strategies.

Automakers are looking to VR technologies to attract buyers, improve their time at dealerships and form a stronger emotional attachment to a product they helped create.

The Audi VR experience uses proprietary software and visualization technology from ZeroLight, a technology company based in Great Britain. Using a VR headset at the dealership, customers can configure their new Audi and experience their dream cars virtually, in real time. And, they have the opportunity to explore every detail of the vehicle as they choose options and accessories in the virtual setting of their choice — a lunar landscape, a tunnel, or the National Library in Paris.

Forbes reported that at the pilot location in London, the Audi VR experience increased new car sales by 60 percent to 70 percent, with 75 percent of sales to first time buyers and customers buying cars at 120 percent of the vehicle pricing because of an increased rate of optional feature purchases. Incredibly, 50 percent of customers in the first year of London dealership's Audi VR experience pilot ordered vehicles without a physical test drive, basing their purchase decision upon their virtual experience. Audi offers the VR experience in select European markets and reportedly plans to offer it worldwide.