The Merging of a Virtual and Business World

November 16, 2018


The term "virtual reality" is not so old. It was first used in the 1982 novel The Judas Mandala by Damien Broderick, a leading Australian science fiction writer. Not surprisingly, the book focused on a 21st-century time-traveler.


But the notion of virtual -- "being something in essence or effect, though not actually or in fact" – goes back to the mid 1400s. The stereoscope, a device that seemingly fuses two images into a single three dimensional “stereo window” was a popular home entertainment medium first introduced in the 1850s.


As a boy, I had a View-Master stereoscope, first introduced to the public in 1939, which featured rotating cardboard disks called “reels,” containing image pairs of exotic places from all over the world. Through my View-Master I was a virtual tourist, seeing the Eiffel Tower, Niagara Falls, and the Grand Canyon.


Back in the Saddle Again


Last month, more than 50 years after my first dabblings in a crude VR with my trusty View-Master, I found myself again a virtual traveler, for what was a much more high-tech, immersive experience.


I was attending the Texas Economic Development Council’s annual conference, and Warren Westcott, manning the booth of the Golden Shovel Agency, invited me to put on an Oculus VR headset and “travel” to Duluth, Minn.


Golden Shovel is a strategic alliance partner to BBA and a leader in offering VR capabilities to economic development organizations nationwide. And it just so happens that I had been to Duluth several years ago on a familiarization tour. Brian Hanson, president & CEO of the Area Partnership for Economic Expansion (APEX) was my host.


I later told Brian, a Golden Shovel VR client, via a LinkedIn post that I wished my return virtual visit had included Duluth-made craft beer, which I remembered from my previous (real) trip. Aaron Brossoit, Golden Shovel’s CEO, chimed in, “We’re working on that.”


Incredibly, today’s VR technology is largely a digital update of the old stereoscope. Like the View-Master of my youth, VR is based on the stereoscopic imagery that essentially fools the brain into seeing a 3D world, but this time through 360 video and audio with computer modelling.


Business Applications Abound


So why does this matter? Why should we care? It’s important because our perception of reality is what we base decisions on. It determines our sense of presence in any given place. In short, and I know this sounds counterproductive and maybe even scary, but we can base business decisions on a separate reality based on illusion.


The truth is that VR and its cousin augmented reality (AR) is being used in a host of industries that includes manufacturing, healthcare, tourism (naturally), education and economic development. It would appear that VR is unleashing a myriad of possibilities, of which we have just scratched the surface.


On Saturday (Nov. 17), 62 cities worldwide will celebrate Virtual Reality Day, where people and companies will give demonstrations and tutorials on the many possibilities of VR.


Bell Helicopter recently employed VR to design its first “concept aircraft” in just six months, a process that would normally take five to seven years. Bell says that the use of VR saved the company tens of millions, compared to its traditional design process. Bell is also using VR as a sales tool for customers to visualize helicopter features before purchasing.


Last month, Walmart began sending VR headsets to its 4,700 stores nationwide. The headsets will be used to train associates in operating new technology and soft skills like empathy and customer service. Walmart began using VR for training purposes last year to prepare its employees for Black Friday sales.


VR Use for Economic Development


Golden Shovel’s Place VR gives communities opportunities that previously eluded them. Now economic developers can offer VR familiarization tours to prospects and site selection consultants in distant offices worldwide.


“Virtual reality allows smaller communities with lesser budgets to compete and be relevant in more site selection conversations,” said Golden Shovel President John Marshall.


 “In the not too distant future, this technology will be as common as a smart phone. Early adopters will be rewarded as being seen as innovative and cutting edge.”


Economic developers frequently invite me to come their communities for “fam tours,’ which no doubt can be expensive for them. And while I have yet to receive a VR headset for a virtual tour, I expect that it will happen. Again, to John’s point, VR can save ED organizations time and money.


Will I participate in economic development virtual tours? Absolutely, all the while knowing that a follow-up actual visit may be in the offing. Having my boots on the ground and asking questions is the best way for me to gain a deeper understanding of a place. Indeed, it is the basis for our BBA Mini SWOT.


That said, a VR trip can serve as the preface for an actual visit to a community, whether it is for purposes of corporate site selection or for economic development consulting, of which BBA does both. VR allows economic developers to show their industrial sites, their downtowns, and the workforce training happening in their local community colleges.


I can imagine that if it is done right (and my friends at Golden Shovel will make sure that it is), a VR community tour will be a “reality” experience, just short of actually being there.


In Retail and Construction


Here’s another VR business application -- Macy’s will employ VR to form a new interactive way for shoppers to buy furniture. By the end of the year, VR displays will be rolled out at 70 Macy’s nationwide, with another 20 stores coming in January.


In the construction industry, VR platforms are being used by architects to walk clients through buildings before they are built, providing for opportunities for feedback and alteration. Paper plans now can be transformed into 3D computer models, and then into immersive VR simulations. Using the same technology, economic developers can show how a building would look and/or  work on a potential site.


A Time Travel Experience


The aforementioned tourism industry, very much integrated into economic development in many places, is taking virtual reality to new levels that include, believe it or not, time travel, the focus Broderick’s 1982 science fiction novel and many other books and movies.


A German company, Digital Devotion Group, has developed technology that allows a person to take a virtual tour of Luxembourg in a horse-drawn carriage in the year 1867. The company says “reality and the virtual world melt into a perfect time travel experience.”


Ethical Questions Posed


Despite the seemingly good uses for VR, the idea of reality as we perceive it and a computer-generated virtual world melding into one does create ethical questions. At least it does for me.


If we create artificial worlds that are indistinguishable from the real one, when we create memories from experiences that feel real but in reality never happened, are we not, in effect, messing with people’s brains? I’m asking, not telling.


One could argue that this just an updated version of the age-old debate as to whether content, be it in video games or in movies or even books, can influence behavior. VR creates a wholly immersive digital experience that goes beyond any other medium.


I do not have an answer, but I wonder if VR could be employed for nefarious purposes that would include mind control, i.e. brainwashing. Again, I am asking.


What is clear is that some companies are at the forefront of doing some very positive things with VR, and I have mentioned just a few of them. As a result, VR is a market that is expected to grow to more than $33 billion by 2024. And that’s a lot of money in any reality.


I’ll see you down the road.

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