Virtual reality is always “just about to take off.” The year 2019 was supposed to be the year that virtual reality “got real.”  It’s now 2020, and the most significant jump in virtual and augmented reality could finally be right around the corner. As we’re finding out, leaving people cooped up in their houses makes alternative realities much more attractive. If you can’t get the real experience, a virtual one will have to do.

More and more companies are seeing opportunities for virtual and augmented reality programs and devices. As more industries are getting creative as a means of staying safe and ultimately staying afloat, we’re starting to see companies taking advantage of what’s already available and moving our digital experiences to the next level.

What’s the Difference Between AR and VR?

Before diving in, it’s worth for clarity’s sake, explaining the differences between these two concepts. Augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) are two distinct technologies with vastly different goals. For industries to understand what technology best suits their needs, they need to understand the chasm that exists between the two.

VR is a pie-in-the-sky technology that’s come leaps and bounds in only ten years. It’s tech that removes you from your surroundings and lands you in a complete 3D virtual world created by a developer and controlled through software. The full VR experience is currently deployed through specially designed headsets. There’s a huge amount of hype surrounding VR because it could either change our lives in quintessential ways, or it may be relegated to the “tech-bro” space, occupied solely by gamers and people with too much time on their hands.

Although VR takes up more space in the public imagination, it’s AR that’s most accessible and on its way to making tangible differences in our lives. Augmented reality overlays computer-generated information onto your real-world view to provide you with more data. Google Glass was an early example of AR, but today, it’s accessible through your phone or tablet.

A few years ago, VR was predicted to be the explosive new technology, but surveys show that the average person is more likely to use AR on a regular basis. Around 13% of the U.S. population use VR programs each month while 20.8% of people use AR. AR is far more accessible and applicable to our daily lives than VR, at least for now.

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How AR and VR Are Saving Lives

The health care sector is often one of the first industries to embrace new tech. While there are many exciting trends happening within health care like telehealth, big data, and artificial intelligence, few are more exciting or more operational than what’s happening with AR and VR. Researchers and practitioners are using both AR and VR to improve a wide range of health care activities, from education to patient safety.

Some of the uses of these technologies are wildly futuristic. For example, teaching hospitals and medical schools are using Microsoft’s HoloLens, a mixed reality headset, to immerse trainees into full virtual experiences to provide a hands-on experience in a perfectly safe environment. HoloLens devices also have applications in the operating room. Surgeons in the UK use the device to overlay 3D digital models and CT scans onto patients during surgeries.

VR headsets could also be used by practitioners working to improve patients’ mental health. The application isn’t new; clinicians began using VR to treat post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among soldiers back in the 1990s. Its use in treatment can help someone revisit trauma in a safe environment controlled by the therapist. This may provide better treatment outcomes compared to real environments. In addition, research is currently underway to use VR to diagnose and treat other conditions including anxiety and Alzheimer’s.

Why AR Could Be the Next Boom in Tech

The current global pandemic will have a lasting impact, and one of those impacts will be a reassessment of both local and global travel. It won’t just impact tourism; it will force people to reconsider how they shop and work. Is that trip to the mall necessary? Does every employee really need to come into the office? Sustained social distancing measures are already impacting the human psyche, and that’s not going to go away anytime soon.

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Here’s an example. Until recently, going on an “Ikea date” was a great source of fun, design inspiration, and cheap meatballs, especially seeing as Ikea is known as being an interior designer’s utopia. After the quarantine is lifted, however, many people will only see an Ikea store as a store the size of a small city with an unending number of surfaces that need sanitizing. Ikea is a good example of the way retail will change: it already has an AR app that allows you to see what its latest furniture pieces will look like in your own home. This app was rolled out long before COVID-19, but it allows customers to shop Ikea’s website with confidence, both now and once stores reopen. Houzz offers a similar tool called “View in My Room 3D,” and since 2018, its two million users have dramatically improved the site’s sales.

Retail isn’t the only industry that needs to hop aboard the AR train ASAP. Any industry can benefit from AR uses behind the scenes, particularly HR. According to Glassdoor, it costs an average of $4,000 and 52 days to hire a new employee. AR used in HR could help companies save money on hiring, or at least give them more for their money. How? It can be used to structure interviews and extend them beyond basic interview questions as well as create smarter onboarding. For example, KFC has created a VR escape room as part of its training process.

 VR and AR are two intertwined but distinct technologies that do more than just bring video games to life. These technologies are changing the way people live, work, and play. As industry leaders pick up on the opportunities AR and VR offer, they will present new uses for both technologies. And since much of the world will spend much of the next few months stuck in their living rooms, 2020 could really be the year VR truly takes off.

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