Think virtual reality and for some 80s headsets and gaming arcades still spring to mind. However thanks to advances in technology and the increasing affordability ability to create immersive 3D environments, the medium is disrupting many industries.
1. Revolutionising transportation networks
Transport Systems Catapult have pioneered a 'Visualisation Laboratory' in Milton Keynes that they believe will revolutionise transport systems in the UK. Designers and engineers are using a unique omnidirectional treadmill to test out their plans and designs in walkways and open spaces – before anything is built.
As part of this, TSC are now using their technology to test the use of driverless cars.
"We see huge potential for virtual reality technology to help solve the UK’s transport problems at a lower cost and without the associated risks of testing new technology in a live environment," explains Graham Fletcher, Modelling and Visualisation Director at TSC.
"We believe virtual reality technology can help ensure the UK is a world leader in transport."
2. Unearthing health and safety in mines
With its reputation for dangerous working conditions, the mining industry is choosing virtual reality to improve health and safety and attract new recruits.
In New South Wales, Mines Rescue have launched a virtual reality training site kitted out with 360 degree view screens that showcases a realistic underground mine.
In such hazardous situations, the technology to simulate real life situations without risk really comes into its own.
"You can’t light fires underground, you can’t have smoke coming at you, and you can’t put people in high pressure situations in real mines where they have to make decisions, but you can do that here," says State Operation Manager, Steve Tonegato.
The company has also built a fully operational 50km underground mine. This unique mixed reality approach allows staff to learn and practice within a safe environment, which can be lifesaving.
3. Making the impossible possible in education
The internet and video technology opened up online learning and research. Virtual reality is the next frontier for teaching and learning.
Today students can be transported to archaeological sites or field trips - without leaving the classroom.
MissionV provides platforms for schools to build virtual learning environments. Managing Director, James Corbett says: "The pedagogies of constructivism and game-based learning show that children learn best by doing or by being."
Such immersive experiences are not only a practical way to educate students, they also make learning fun and accessible.
4. Virtual stores becoming a reality
The shopper experience could soon become virtual as retailers see the impact this technology can have.
3D experience company, Dassault Systèmes designed a virtual reality shelving system for manufacturers to see their products on selves.
Being able to virtually browse shelves before they buy, opens up a world of possibilities for shoppers. Outdoor retailers could offer customers the chance to try out a tent for size, or test out new kitchen gadgets – all from home.
Will virtual reality make consumers buy more? Time will tell. But it will certainly add a new dimension to the way we shop.
5. Virtualising healthcare
Hospitals and healthcare professionals are already using exciting virtual ways to train students, diagnose illnesses and treat patients.
Alex Magnussen is an orthopaedic surgeon and tutor at Imperial College London.
“[We use] those little plastic torsos that have a mouth that you breathe into, and the plastic chest that has a spring in it," he says. "It teaches you the basic skills, but it doesn’t put you in a real-world scenario."
Magnussen is now introducing a surgery simulator. Trainee surgeons get a feeling of what it’s like in an operating theatre, without posing risks to patients.
Used alongside existing procedures like MRI scans, virtual reality also becomes a useful diagnostic tool that can remove the need for invasive procedures or surgery.
The benefit for patients? Treatment in a computer-generated world places them in a safe, controlled environment.