10 Industries That Will Be Transformed by Virtual and Augmented Reality

By Paul Mealy

Major technological changes such as virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) rarely take place without disrupting a number of existing industries. Some of the industries that will be affected are obvious (such as gaming and entertainment). But many more industries may not even have VR or AR on their radar today, to their detriment. VR and AR could cause a massive upheaval in the industry as they now know it.

All industries should take stock of how VR or AR could end up affecting them. The last thing any industry wants to be is slow to react to upcoming changes. Even if you don’t see your current industry on this list, that doesn’t mean it’ll be free from change. When you consider the future of VR and AR, cast a wide net and think of every possibility, no matter how unlikely it may seem based on current technology.

Letting your mind wander and consider ideas that may seem crazy today is far less expensive than not considering a possibility and having that possibility brought to life by another company while you’re left flat-footed, unprepared for change.

VR and AR for travel

The travel industry is one of the sleeper industries that could see the greatest amount of upheaval because of VR and AR. And it can be difficult to pinpoint just which way the wave will break for the travel industry. The VR and AR revolution could become a huge boon to the industry — or its greatest threat.

On the upside, VR and AR are opening up a world to potential customers like never before. VR can give users glimpses of places throughout the world, inspiring them to want to visit the real-world versions of the locations they’ve only experienced a small taste of in VR.

AR applications are already helping expose users to information when they’re out and about in unfamiliar places. For example, the social review app Yelp has long had a built-in feature called Monocle, which provides users overlays of information about nearby businesses in AR. Other apps, such as England’s Historic Cities, serve as virtual tour guides, superimposing information about various tourist destinations and artifacts for users to explore while in the locations themselves.

Yelp's Monocle VR
Yelp’s Monocle feature.

On the flipside, could VR or AR applications remove people’s desire to travel at all? Google Earth is currently a poor replacement for the experience of actually being there, but who’s to say that future generations that incorporate VR or AR won’t be dramatically better?

AR applications such as HoloTour allow any user with a Microsoft HoloLens to tour locations such as Rome or Machu Picchu via panoramic video, holographic scenery, and spatial sound, all without leaving the couch. HoloTour includes a virtual travel guide, serving up historical information along with visuals. And in certain locations, such as the Colosseum in Rome, you can travel back in time to experience historical events in ways unavailable to you even if you were to travel there in the real world.

Experiences such as these will only serve to get better as VR and AR solve more of their existing issues with fidelity and locomotion. At a fraction of the price of a single trip to these locations, headsets may eventually replicate the fidelity of travel “close enough” for many users. Or it may not. The travel industry should evaluate these upcoming changes now to stay ahead of the curve.

VR and AR for museum exploration

Similar to the tourism industry, museums rely on providing an experience to their visitors that they can’t receive while sitting at home. The rise of personal computers and the Internet has seen museums grow and change along with the differing needs of their visitors.

Now that the entire knowledge of mankind is a touch away on any mobile phone, museums have looked for angles to bring a deeper experience to their patrons, finding new and interesting ways to incorporate digital technology alongside physical experiences. Many museums have created exhibits that do just that, combining technology and physical interaction in new and interesting ways that patrons could not otherwise experience on their own.

VR and AR introduce a new twist on the old technological challenges. How can museums stay relevant in a world where VR or AR provides the sense of presence to users, a niche currently filled by museums?

The Skin & Bones exhibit at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History may provide a glimpse of potential future uses as museums seek to embrace VR and AR alongside physical exhibits. The Bone Hall opened in 1881 and is the Smithsonian’s oldest. The exhibit still contains many of the original skeletons that the hall opened with more than 100 years ago, but now guests can utilize an AR app to overlay animal skin and motion onto the bones themselves. The exhibit is given new life as guests can watch a bat form from a skeleton and fly out of the exhibit, and see a rattlesnake latch onto a virtual rodent.

The image below shows the view of a visitor both without AR and with AR through the museum’s Skin & Bones application, to be used when at the museum to augment the exhibits. Even better, the museum has allowed a select number of the exhibits to be viewable at home. Not only is AR giving old exhibits new life, but it’s serving as marketing material for the museum outside the museum, enticing users with an interesting look at a current exhibit and the promise of a deeper experience on-site.

Smithosonian Skin & Bones AR experience
The Smithsonian’s Skin & Bones app without AR (top) and with AR (bottom).

Museums are constantly looking to stay ahead of the curve in how to handle incoming technological changes. The combination of a physical exhibit experience augmented with extrasensory digital information points to how museums could work to keep up with ever-advancing technology.

VR and AR in aerospace

Space exploration is currently at a crossroads. On the one hand, national organizations such as NASA have seen a steady decline in their budgets as a percentage of the federal budget for the last two decades. On the other, a new breed of entrepreneurs is stepping in to fill the void left by NASA. New companies such as Blue Origin, SpaceX, Orbital, and Virgin Galactic are looking to make space mining, space tourism, and even trips to Mars viable in the near future.

SpaceVR is looking to align itself with the space tourism movement. The platform, billed as the first of its kind in creating “live, virtual space tourism,” is planning to launch a satellite capable of capturing high-resolution, fully-immersive live video and beam it back to any current VR device, ranging from mobile VR headsets up to the Oculus Rift. Depending on level of interest, an entire cottage industry could be created from virtual space tourism.

It’s possible to imagine one of the space tourism companies, years from now, landing on Mars while millions watch from here on Earth. Not huddled around a television set as we were in 1969, but instead with our VR/AR headsets on, a fully immersed 360-degree live video feed of what the first astronauts see upon landing on Mars.

VR and AR in retail

Retail is already undergoing its own dramatic shift. Malls are struggling to fill storefront space, and many traditionally brick-and-mortar brands are finding their physical storefronts too costly to continue operation, opting instead to maintain only their online properties.

Malls may meet with an unlikely savior in the form of VR. Large-scale free-roaming VR experiences as location-based experiences, or “VRcades,” are currently being rolled out to malls and other brick-and-mortar locations everywhere. These types of experiences can’t be duplicated within most users’ homes, so malls may be the perfect places for many users to experience high-end VR for the time being.

HTC has announced plans to open up 5,000 VRcades in the near future, and companies such as the VOID and Hyperspace XR are also exploring location-based extended reality experiences. This sort of location-based entertainment likely won’t sustain malls indefinitely, but it may offer a stay of execution for a short while.

Large retailers such as IKEA, Amazon, and Target have already begun using AR to allow customers to see how furniture could look when placed in users’ homes. Find the product you want, and place it virtually in your own space!

AR has made its way into the fashion world as well. Major retailer Gap unveiled a pilot app called DressingRoom, which utilizes AR to help users “try on” clothing through their smartphones, placing a 3D avatar of a user in her physical space to view how the clothing may look on her.

AR applications such as these make you think: Could AR eventually be the downfall of brick-and-mortar stores? If the fidelity of the visuals in VR or AR reaches a point where the realism is close enough to the real world, will there be a reason for users to go to these physical storefronts at all?

The Internet changed the way that people and businesses buy and sell products. Companies that were able to adapt to this new reality were wildly successful; those that were unable to adapt were left behind. Perhaps hard to imagine now, VR and AR could be the impetus of a similar technological leap in the retail space, making it vital for those in the retail industry to consider their positioning and how they plan on adapting to this changing retail landscape.

VR and AR in the military

The military has long been a supporter of evaluating cutting-edge technology. They have always looked for ways to incorporate technology in order to cut costs or improve the way departments are run. This openness to new technology and willingness to experiment should serve the military well moving forward. It could provide a blueprint for other industries, laying out the proper way to address emerging technologies.

Though few businesses may have the time or budget that most militaries do, any business can emulate the experimental mind-set the military has adopted concerning emerging technologies. Rapid experimentation and prototyping is important. Choosing a solution, testing it, keeping what works, and discarding what doesn’t can be done by any company, large or small.

Today, the military has already incorporated VR into its training protocols. Companies such as Cubic Global Defense are creating VR military training experiences such as the Immersive Virtual Shipboard Environment (IVSE), which places trainees in simulated “real-life” experiences, simulating scenarios that would be prohibitively expensive to replicate in real life.

But the greatest change VR and AR could bring to the military is only tangentially related to the military itself. VR is often referred to as an “empathy machine.” It offers an intimacy to viewers that no other medium can match. As such, could VR help nations better understand one another? Could it serve to help end conflicts between countries? Some entrepreneurs believe so.

Karim Ben Khelifa, a wartime photojournalist, had long questioned whether his photographs conveyed the reality he was experiencing on the ground. “What is the point of images of war if they don’t change people’s attitudes towards armed conflicts, violence, and the suffering they produce?” Khelifa asked. “What is the point if they don’t change anyone’s mind? What is the point if they don’t help create peace?”

With these questions in mind, Khelifa set out to create “The Enemy,” an experience combining both VR and AR, aiming to inform users about a number of conflicts throughout the world. Users can don a VR headset and explore a digital environment where combatants on both sides of a conflict share their stories and experiences. They can download an AR app and listen to one combatant share his story; then they can turn 180 degrees and find that combatant’s “enemy” standing there, waiting to tell his side of the story.

Some people may say that counting on VR or AR to end conflicts is a pipe dream. But technology and the dissemination of information has long been a powerful tool for breaking down barriers. By nearly any measure, we live in a far more peaceful and inclusive time than any of our ancestors, and technology has played no small part in accomplishing that. As Khelifa’s experiment claims on the project website, “The Enemy is always invisible. When he becomes visible, he ceases to be the Enemy.” VR and AR can help bring visibility to opposing sides.

VR and AR in education

VR and AR companies are already targeting the business of education. And with good reason. The functions VR and AR do well — presenting a plethora of information in new and engaging ways — align perfectly with the needs of educators looking to inform an increasingly tech-savvy generation of students.

What may start off as a traditional lecture on a historical event such as the sinking of the Titanic could instantly be transformed as the lecturer turns the classroom itself into a virtual setting of the ship colliding with an iceberg. Or perhaps the lecturer changes the view to one of a submarine, exploring the depths of the wreckage in a realistic virtual setting.

On a larger scale, entire classrooms could now take place virtually. Children who couldn’t attend school for various reasons (illness, distance) could attend these same classes virtually. Class size and school location could play much less a factor in what school a child attends. The virtual experience could also offer a far deeper experience than the one currently offered by books or computers alone.

As we move forward with technologies such as VR and AR, it’s important that as a society we consider ways to ensure these technologies are accessible to all, regardless of ability or socioeconomic status. The ability for all to experience VR was one of the tenets of Google Cardboard. Finding ways for VR and AR to make it into classrooms, libraries, and other public settings to ensure everyone can experience these technologies should be something to consider as we progress.

Within the realm of AR, it’s easy to imagine AR taking the place of many online lessons that are currently paired with textbooks. Put on your AR headset and watch a World War II history lesson come alive on the pages of your textbook. The proliferation of AR on mobile devices means that, within the next few years, this type of experience may become the most common way students experience interactive textbook content. Point your mobile device to a tracking marker in your textbook and an interactive experience appears.

Taking things further, is it possible that books could be eliminated entirely and replaced by a pair of AR glasses? Many schools already require students to purchase laptops as early as middle school. It isn’t farfetched to imagine, within the next decade or so, students being required to buy AR or VR/AR-hybrid glasses. These glasses could present information in engaging ways far surpassing that of traditional printed material, with the added benefit of removing the need to purchase textbooks for each class or area of study. A single pair of AR glasses could be all a student needs, and each course could provide lessons formatted for that device.

VR and AR in entertainment

Entertainment is an industry in which the tie-ins to both VR and AR seem obvious. The usage of VR in gaming is currently overrepresented compared to its presence in most other industries, and VR in film is just another tool in filmmakers’ toolbox for presenting the stories they want to tell.

A number of VR film studios have popped up in the wake of the release of the Oculus DK1 in 2013, such as Kite & Lightning and Limitless. These studios push the boundaries of traditional storytelling, not only by subverting 2D filmmaking for 360-degree 3D films, but also by beginning to explore a level of interactivity within these experiences, taking the experience a step beyond more passively consumed 2D films.

Similarly, AR games and entertainment are already somewhat pervasive throughout the AR market. The most widely downloaded AR app was the game Pokémon Go. Many other AR games and entertainment apps exist, with large brands such as the Harry Potter franchise looking into how they can use AR to keep fans engaged with their franchise outside the walls of traditional media.

But aside from these more “traditional” uses, what sort of seismic shifts could the future of entertainment undergo with these technologies? For one, live entertainment could soon see an upheaval thanks to VR. A number of potential customers for live events have already traded in the experience and hassle of attending a live event for the comfort of their own couches and big-screen TVs. What happens to these live events when VR takes its next big technological leap forward?

Will attending these live events become a relic of the past? Instead of a stadium packed with 50,000 fans, will stadiums instead be packed with 360-degree cameras, each offering a different ticket “package” for viewers to subscribe to? Some people theorize that with enough cameras and enough data, you’ll be able to extract enough information from the scene to virtually view from locations where no cameras even exist and watch from literally any angle you like.

AR also has application for live sporting events. Microsoft put together an impressive vision of the future football fan experience using the HoloLens in conjunction with the NFL. Alongside the game on TV, users with a HoloLens are treated to a second screen experience using AR. The game is extended beyond a fan’s TV set, with Marshawn Lynch’s latest rushing statistics projected on the wall or an overhead view of Russell Wilson’s latest miraculous evasion of a sack projected on the coffee table.

This image shows a screenshot of how Microsoft envisions the future of experiencing football games could be with the Microsoft HoloLens. The standard user experience of just watching on TV is now augmented into the user’s physical environment digitally with extra data and visual holograms, all configurable by the user.

future of football and AR from Microsoft
A screen capture of Microsoft’s take on the future of football and AR.

Perhaps there are even broader implications here. Could the TV itself be disappearing? As AR glasses become commonplace or, even farther out, AR contact lenses or even brain-computer interfaces begin to arrive, the need for a stand-alone device to display video could disappear.

Want a 100-inch TV for displaying video on your wall? Pop on your AR glasses, spread out your hands to make it so. Want the image to appear instead in a small out-of-the-way corner? Not a problem — just “grab” the image and scale it down or slide it over. The constraints of a standard 2D screen for viewing video may be abolished sooner than you think.

It’s entirely possible that the current generation of children could be the last that actually experiences 2D TV as we know it. The TV may survive to see its 100th birthday in 2027, but don’t be surprised if it’s unable to make it much past that, its demise hurried along by AR.

A brain-computer interface (BCI) is the establishment of a communication pathway between the brain and a computer. A BCI could have the ability to augment your cognitive functions directly via your brain and remove the need for extra hardware such as glasses in order to augment your reality. It has the potential to change everything we know about what it means to be human. We’re likely decades away from even considering BCIs as a remote possibility.

VR and AR in real estate

Real estate’s core mantra has always been “Location, location, location.” A run-down one-bedroom condominium in a desirable location such as New York or San Francisco can run you hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars. Meanwhile, a beautiful seven-bedroom mansion in rural North Dakota may cost only a fraction of that price. However, if VR becomes convincing enough, is it possible that it could make everything we know about real estate obsolete?

It seems far-fetched to think that anyone would abandon a beach-front property anytime soon. And certainly some locations will never be able to offer the same amenities or activities as others. But the Internet has already started this trend. When hiring, companies in large cities are no longer limiting themselves by hiring employees within commuting distance of their office. Distributed teams and telecommuting are commonplace, and they’ll only become more so. Companies such as Pluto are exploring ways to enhance meetings and communication between distributed users in VR. Although still very early technology, these VR communication tools offer a sense of presence beyond that of even current video conferencing levels.

If VR can deliver a realistic enough experience to a user without the need to leave his home, could some users choose to leave the high-priced, “desired” locations of today in favor of larger, cheaper accommodations elsewhere, where they can virtualize their reality as they see fit?

Similarly, will the size of a space no longer matter as much? If someone can put on a VR headset and haptic gloves or an exoskeleton for virtualizing movement and feel as if she has the space of a mansion, will that experience be strong enough for her to ignore her real-world surroundings, regardless of how small they are?

These ideas may stretch credibility today. But these questions have long been explored in media such as Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One. In a world that’s becoming more and more virtual, an industry very much based on physical location should take a hard look at itself and question where it may fall in this new virtual world order.

VR and AR in advertising and marketing

Advertisers and marketers are often quick to jump on the bandwagon of what could be the next big thing. Whatever new technology is adopted at mass-consumer level, marketers want to have a plan in place to use this new platform to advertise and sell to consumers.

It’s no surprise that Google, with its reliance on advertising income, has already begun experiments on what a native VR ad format could look like. Similar to banner ads on websites, the current Google iteration displays ads as small 3D objects in a scene. If a user engages with the ad either via direct interaction or gaze, a video player opens in 3D space that can be closed out.

Similarly, technology company Unity has begun its own explorations of advertising in VR, suggesting creating “Virtual Rooms.” A Virtual Room would be a new VR location a user could access via a portal from the main experience, leaving the current VR application and entering into a brand’s Virtual Room experience.

You can picture similar types of advertisements playing out in virtual environments. Virtual ad space could be sold to advertisers to do with what they will, and handle as they want, with static ads, motion ads, or even ads that allow user interaction. VR advertising could be aimed at fans viewing a live concert or sporting event through VR. This advertising could enable much deeper interaction for the viewer than ads aimed at those attending the event or viewing the event on TV.

Perhaps more interesting (and potentially nefarious) is the thought of AR advertising. As AR glasses or contacts reach critical mass, the AR advertising industry will explode. Think of the possibilities: When literally any and all surfaces in the physical world can become a potential area to display advertisements, companies will fight tooth and nail to display their brands in front of users.

The image below shows a still from Keiichi Matsuda’s dystopian short, Hyper-Reality, where every surface of a user’s reality is digitally bombarded with extrasensory data. Shown through the protagonist’s point-of-view via an AR device, every surface of the real world appears to be covered with digital advertisements. Everywhere the protagonist travels is an exhausting menagerie of flashing videos, infographics, and static ads. Even the interior of the grocery store offers no respite — ads for coconuts and weight loss supplements pop up, and the entire interior of the store lights up with virtual billboards like Times Square. In the film, when the intensely colorful AR experience malfunctions for a few moments, you see the real-world as it is, drab, gray, and covered with AR tracking markers.

Hyper-Reality dystopian film
A still from Keiichi Matsuda’s short Hyper-Reality.

 

This dystopian view of the future is heightened to jar the viewer, but in the near future you can count on advertisers looking to get their brands in front of potential customers using this new technology in any way possible. If we aren’t careful and don’t demand that advertisers and marketers use this newfound power responsibly, a view of the future similar to this may not be far off.

Unknown VR and AR applications

Every large-scale technological revolution or technology wave has inadvertently created entirely new industries. Some examples:

  • The rise of personal computers led to the creation of innumerable hardware and software companies, from Microsoft to Apple to gaming companies to applications and utilities.
  • The Internet’s invention provided a plethora of new industries and companies as well, from Amazon to eBay to Facebook, from e-commerce to social media and social websites to blogging, from online file sharing to digital music, podcasts, and video streaming services.
  • Mobile phones’ rise in popularity created an entire industry of app developers and re-birthed the popularity of microtransactions. It gave way to the rise of numerous social networking companies and applications, all based on the ability of users to connect on the go.

Predicting the industries that VR and AR will create is next to impossible. Henry Ford is often quoted as saying, “If I had asked customers what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” This quote illustrates just how difficult it can be for us to imagine the unknown. we can be limited by our knowledge, and we’ll almost always ground our predictions within those known boundaries, which can make it difficult to imagine those truly great leaps forward that change the way we understand the world.

With the rise of VR and AR, new industries will be birthed alongside them — industries we may not even fathom at the moment. Perhaps years from now, it won’t be out of the ordinary to see “VR environment repairperson” or “AR brain technician” as job titles. The possibilities are endless!