Illustration by Forelimbart

Fancy trekking the Sahara, exploring the Great Barrier Reef or taking up a front-row seat at the Dior couture show in Paris?

Well, thanks to virtual reality (VR), you can—all from the comfort of your own sofa. Once the realm of science fiction, VR and its sister, augmented reality (AR), are real-life mainstream reality these days, made possible by the technical magic of special cameras and software that deliver a totally immersive experience via the internet, apps and VR headsets.

Google has sold more than five million of its Cardboard viewers since the foldable, low-cost VR accessory for smartphones was launched in 2014, and it has recently added a range of premium headsets. In March last year, two years after Facebook paid US$2 billion for game company Oculus, the Oculus Rift headset was launched; in April came the HTC Vive; October saw the arrival of Sony’s Playstation VR; and at the end of the year Microsoft launched the Hololens, an AR product that projects digital images over a real-world view.

According to the website TechCrunch, more than US$1.2 billion was invested in VR/AR technology in just the first three months of 2016, a year that saw a fourfold increase in the number of Google searches about virtual reality.

Goldman Sachs predicts the market will be worth up to US$100 billion by 2025. So it’s not so much a question of when it will arrive, but how it’s already shaping our lives. Here are some of the ways.


Illustration by Forelimbart


Gaming companies were prime movers behind the VR push, but their first productions were relatively crude.

For example, Nintendo had a big failure with the Virtual Boy headset, launched in 1995 after US$25 million spent in development. With bad visuals that caused eyestrain and nausea, and very few games, the boy bombed, with global sales of just 770,000.

But the latest headsets, such as the Oculus Rift and Playstation VR launched last year, truly deliver immersive gaming. Players feel they’re actually in the car during a high-speed chase, or on the tennis court or battlefield facing a foe. And there are now virtual reality rooms where people from all over the globe meet, as avatars, to play in virtual worlds together.

It’s worth noting that you might need a little more space when gaming at home than you did with your old console. Your eyes and ears are cut off from the real world, so if you’re evading sniper fire or chasing an enemy, the risk of tripping over the sofa and knocking out a tooth is very real.


Illustration by Forelimbart


Fancy cosying up to Kate Moss and Anna Wintour in the front row at your favourite label’s runway show?

No problem. Balenciaga broadcast its autumn/winter 2016 show in virtual reality, meaning anyone with a headset could take a seat. And brands such as Topshop, Hussein Chalayan and Rebecca Minkoff have all done the same.

Chalayan told Dazed magazine last year, “I’m excited about VR because it gives the viewer an experience removed from both space and time.” Dior has taken it a step further and launched its own VR headset, Dior Eyes.


Illustration by Forelimbart


Ever booked a holiday on the strength of glossy brochures or someone’s recommendation and been disappointed?

With VR, you can try before you buy, virtually visiting a destination before making a booking. Travel agents and tourist boards have been quick to cotton on, providing potential visitors with a taste of the real thing—whether it’s a look around your hotel room or the temples of Angkor Wat.

For example, British travel agent Thomas Cook partnered with Samsung and VR filmmaker Visualise to create short films enabling customers to “visit” New York, Singapore and Egypt using Samsung’s Gear VR headset.

Similarly, African travel operator Matoke Tours produced a virtual brochure featuring six travel experiences, such as going on safari and meeting gorillas, while Virgin Holidays used Google Cardboard to take customers to Mexico and Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.

YouVisit, which specialises in creating such VR tours, says 13 per cent of people who take a VR tour move on to the next step in organising an actual trip.


Illustration by Forelimbart


Need a new car but can’t face the irritation of dealing with car salesmen and traipsing from one showroom to the next?

Virtual reality is set to reduce the number of cars needed in showrooms, with VR experiences allowing would-be buyers to take virtual test drives and to decide on the configuration of their car, flicking through different leathers and interior decors while— virtually—sitting in the vehicle.

Audi is rolling out VR systems at dealerships to enable customers to experience vehicles in various environments and to “virtually dive into specific parts of the vehicle and explore their technical design,” according to its website.

The customer designs their dream car on a tablet and is then able to don a headset to experience it from both the outside and the inside.

Cadillac has implemented a programme that will eventually replace all cars in dealerships with headsets. It is even looking to replace some dealerships with travelling salespeople armed with VR headsets.

Volvo has a pilot project using Microsoft Hololens that allows people to build their ideal car. While a virtual experience will never be able to replicate the thrill of a real-life test drive, it can be a useful tool to narrow down the options before you get behind the wheel.


Illustration by Forelimbart

Professional Training

Vocational training for many crafts and occupations is expensive, usually requiring trainers and trainees to be in the same place, and often requiring the use of expensive or scarce resources.

Medical students, for example, learn by watching surgeons at work, and only so many can fit in an observation booth.

In April last year, surgeon Shafi Ahmed conducted the world’s first live-stream operation in virtual reality from an operating theatre in London. The surgery, on a 70-year-old cancer patient, was filmed by two 360-degree cameras with multiple lenses, and it could be viewed live by anyone around the world with an internet connection and a VR headset.

Rather than the static experience of watching a video screen, viewers with headsets were able to experience the whole environment, moving around the operating theatre and seeing what everyone was doing.

Soon, trainees will be working on holographic cadavers and practising surgical techniques in VR before facing the real thing. Similar use of VR will revolutionise training across many professions.


Illustration by Forelimbart

Journalism & Empathy

Virtual reality is potentially the ultimate empathy machine.

The United Nations partnered with production company Here Be Dragons to create a VR film, Clouds Over Sidra, telling the story of a 12-year-old girl living in a Syrian refugee camp. The UN’s first VR film, it proved very successful when shown in March 2015 at a high-level donor meeting in Kuwait, helping to raise US$3.8 billion in aid.

“These films can help donors understand the everyday reality of ordinary people caught in the middle of conflict and can help form policies and raise funding,” Here Be Dragons co-founder Patrick Milling Smith told the Guardian.

Journalists and media companies are also embracing the technology. The New York Times dipped its toe in the water in November 2015, shipping Google Cardboard headsets to subscribers for viewing the newspaper’s own award-winning VR film about refugee children in Syria, The Displaced.

Now the paper has its own VR app and is collaborating with Samsung, which provides Gear 360 cameras and equipment to its journalists around the world so they can deliver 360-degree videos as part of the Times’ news service.


Photo courtesy of My New Reality

Real Estate

The use of VR to allow prospective buyers to view properties from afar is already a thriving sector, and Goldman Sachs estimates it will treble by 2020. Sotheby’s is already selling premium mansions in Los Angeles and elsewhere using VR, and many other estate agents are now offering virtual tours of properties.

It’s particularly relevant in the prime property market, where investors often live thousands of kilometres away from the real estate they want to view. VR is also invaluable for off the- plan developments, where buyers are trying to envisage their future life in what’s currently a hole in the ground.

It also serves as a powerful visualisation tool for interior designers and architects, who can show their clients how things will look before laying a brick or ripping down a single curtain.


Illustration by Forelimbart


Oculus co-founder Nate Mitchell is most excited by VR’s potential in education.

“Virtual field trips to museums are already possible, but it will soon be feasible for a class of kids to put on headsets and visit the moon or the Colosseum,” he told Vogue. “This is truly hands-on learning.”

In September 2015, Google launched its Expeditions Pioneer Programme, which provides schools with kits that enable teachers to create synchronised virtual school trips their pupils experience through VR headsets, drawing on 120 tours of places such as Antarctica, the Acropolis or the Borneo rainforest. During these “trips,” the children can interact with objects and the teachers can superimpose information on the visuals.

(Text by: Chloe Street)


Tags: Technology, Virtual Reality