Tech Drivers
Tech Drivers

10 industries rushing to embrace virtual reality

Attendees wear the Samsung Gear VR virtual reality headset at the Las Vegas Convention Center, January 5, 2016 in Las Vegas, Nevada ahead of the CES 2016 Consumer Electronics Show.
Robyn Beck | AFP |Getty Images

It's not surprising that 2016 may be labeled the year of virtual reality.

Headsets from Oculus, HTC and Samsung are already on the market, and Sony is already warning about expected supply demand for its PlayStation VR unit that launched in October.

Indeed, video games have been the poster child for this generation of virtual reality. A lot of the conversation around the technology has been focused on its ability to open up a new avenue of immersion and game play (as well as revenue for game publishers). But VR goes a lot further than the video game world. There are a number of other industries that are hoping to take advantage of the technology — and a number of companies hoping to capitalize on its spread to new fields.

1. Retail

A general view of SapientNitro during Advertising Week 2015 AWXII at the ADARA Stage at Times Center Hall on October 1, 2015 in New York City.
Mike Pont | Getty Images for AWXII

It's one thing to explore a retailer's selection of items via online shopping, but virtual reality can change the way people explore a store. Trips to a furniture or even car showroom can be shortened significantly as potential buyers winnow down potential selections from home. At the National Retail Federation's Big Show in January, digital marketing company SapientNitro demoed a virtual shopping experience that transported people to a tastefully furnished SoHo apartment. When users focused their attention on a particular furniture piece, they got pricing and other information, then could add it to their cart with a simple tap. Lowes, meanwhile, has launched what it calls a "Holoroom" in 19 locations around the country.

Visitors to these stores can take part in a VR experience that lets them design their dream bathroom or kitchen in a virtual space, then step into it and share with friends via a YouTube 360 video.

2. News gathering and dissemination

RYOT is helping people step virtually into disaster zones with a 360 degree view of the event and the Nepal Quake Project is RYOT's first disaster film shot in virtual reality.
Mark Ralston | AFP | Getty Images

Outlets from the New York Times to ABC have launched VR news storytelling units, but few have jumped in quite as enthusiastically as Verizon and AOL's Huffington Post, which bought Ryot, a VR breaking-news service earlier this year for somewhere between $10 million and $15 million. The service now provides VR news videos about subjects ranging from Donald Trump to the Nepal earthquake.

"As anyone who's ever experienced VR on a headset or 360 video on your phone knows, the possibilities are powerful," Huffington wrote when the deal was announced. "And Ryot brings all the tech know-how that make these experiences possible."

3. Advertising

An attendee tries out a Samsung Electronics Co. Gear VR headset during a media event in Seoul, South Korea, on Thursday, Aug. 11, 2016.
SeongJoon Cho | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Ad companies are adopting a soft-sell approach to VR advertising right now, creating content around the lifestyle a company's brand embraces. Mountain Dew did so last year with "Dew VR Snow," which allowed owners of the Samsung's Gear VR headset to go heli-skiing in Utah with pro snowboarders. It ultimately became the most watched video for months on the headset. The debate in the ad world, though, is about what form advertising will take as VR becomes more mainstream.

"If you're in an interactive experience, you don't want to stop and have a commercial break," said Anthony Batt, co-founder and executive vice president of Wevr, during a panel at this year's SXSW Interactive conference. "The creators that have brands participate with them need to hold that line and say, 'In an immersive experience, it would be really toxic to have a brand interrupt.'"

4. Hollywood films

Robin Marchant | Getty Images for Sundance Film Festiva

We're still a few years off from a tentpole film in VR, but many of Hollywood's biggest names, including Ridley Scott, Steven Spielberg and J.J. Abrams, are already working on projects using the technology. And short VR films have already been screened at film festivals like Sundance and Tribeca. It's an intimidating technology for directors, as it turns control of the film's focal point over to the viewer, but it can bring the audience deeper into the story.

While Hollywood looks for the best use, VR headset owners can already download films like "Gone" (a two-hour film broken into 10-minute segments) on their Samsung Gear VR and, soon, the animated film "Henry" on their Oculus Rift.

5. Music

Festival goers wear Gear VR headsets to watch Biffy Clyros immersive music video of the new track Flammable in the Samsung Hypercube on Day 4 of Bestival at Robin Hill Country Park on September 11, 2016 in Newport, Isle of Wight.
Joseph Okpako | WireImage | Getty Images

It's tough getting front-row tickets to your favorite musical artist, but with VR you can experience the best seat in the house. Music companies are already exploring the role the technology can play in live music experiences, including giving fans who are unable to attend shows a virtual premium seat — or perhaps onstage access.

Others are exploring how VR and music videos can work together, with artists potentially sharing and monetizing their music in ways that currently aren't possible. And some artists, like Paul McCartney, are using VR to connect with fans and tell the stories behind some of their greatest hits.

6. Health care

Woman during a session of virtual reality therapy to treat acrophobia or extreme fear of heights. Department of Psychiatry, Pitie-Salpetriere hospital, Paris, France.
Getty Images

Neurosurgery is an extremely delicate operation, so a company called Surgical Theater is helping surgeons prepare for operations by blending VR and techniques learned from flight simulators. Standard two-dimensional brain scans are stacked to create a 3-D model, which surgeons can then explore (or "fly through") in a 360-degree view before the surgery, spotting critical issues that need to be addressed and potential trouble spots.

It's not only helpful for doctors, it also helps patients get a better sense of what will occur during the procedure, which can help put them at ease.

7. Travel

Two women use Virtual Reality glasses to watch a 360 degrees film promoting Bavaria at the the booth of Bavaria at the International Tourism Fair ITB in Berlin on March 10, 2016.
Tobias Schwarz | AFP | Getty Images

At the Lufthansa gate at Berlin's Schönefeld Airport, people awaiting their flight have a new way to entertain themselves. The airline has installed a number of public VR kiosks so travelers can pass the time with, say, a virtual jaunt to Miami before they board. Qantas Airlines, meanwhile, launched a video in the Oculus store last year about Hamilton Island, a vacation destination along the Great Barrier Reef. Since then, it has been downloaded more than 35,000 times.

Travel officials say VR can inspire travel, let airlines steer customer attention to things like service (rather than cost) and be a wonderful source of in-flight entertainment.

8. Sports training

A couple using the VR simulator for a soccer game.
Getty Images

The quarterback on the University of Arkansas' football team runs many of the same drills as his contemporaries on other teams, but the practice doesn't end on the field. Last year Brandon Allen (who has since been drafted by the Jacksonville Jaguars) used VR to improve his game. Arkansas uses Strivr, a sports-focused VR company, to improve player skills.

The system positions a camera on the field during practices, letting players (primarily quarterbacks) and coaches relive plays as many times as necessary to see what they should improve upon. In other words, more knowledge, less wear-and-tear on the body. The NBA's Washington Wizards and NHL's Washington Capitals have both signed on as Strivr customers as well.

9. Space travel

NASA astronaut Scott Kelly checks out the Microsoft HoloLens aboard the space station February 20, 2016 in space.
NASA | Getty Images

For the past three years, NASA has used the Oculus Rift to help astronauts learn to control a robot's arm so they can "see" what it's like to be inside an alien world. Scientists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology say they hope to use VR as part of a method to make future space missions more immersive, giving them better control over the tools they use to explore and how they interact with any discoveries.

10. Adult entertainment

Gaming fans sample Samsung's Gear VR powered by Oculus during the 2016 Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) annual video game conference and show on June 14, 2016 in Los Angeles, California.
Frederic J. Brown | AFP | Getty Images

With any new technology, the adult entertainment industry is often the first to capitalize on it. And porn companies are already swarming on VR. Naughty America, which has shown its product at CES and E3 (the video game industry's annual convention) this year, says 1 percent to 2 percent of our membership base already streams and downloads VR content — and that number is growing faster than any format the company has every tracked. Another company, AliceX, lets users talk directly with a live model and charges a per-minute rate.