How virtual reality could change your business

Virtual reality has been '10 years away for 40 years,' says one CEO, but it's now on our doorstep

Samsung's Gear VR will be the first consumer-grade virtual reality available for purchase.

Samsung's Gear VR will be the first consumer-grade virtual reality available for purchase.

Virtual reality has been anticipated with feverish excitement by gaming enthusiasts, but it could be just as transformative for businesses.

So says Bob Berry, cofounder and CEO of Envelop VR, which is developing productivity software that will tap VR to offer business users new ways of working. The US company was founded last year, and on Monday it said it had secured US$2 million in seed funding.

Virtual reality is a technology that has been "10 years away for 40 years," Berry said. Today, it has finally reached a level of maturity whereby it can deliver "presence" -- where your brain really thinks you're somewhere else -- without the motion sickness hampering earlier versions, according to Berry.

"In the 1990s, I was in a Ph.D. program in Japan studying VR, and having to end a day of research early because you made yourself nauseous was a common occurrence," he said. "The human brain and visual system have certain requirements that need to be met in order for the brain to accept what it's seeing."

In the last few years, hardware advances primarily originating in the smartphone industry have solved many of those problems, Berry said.

Envelop VR hasn't divulged many specifics of its upcoming software, other than to say it will produce "experiences that are simply impossible in other mediums," Berry said.

"For the enterprise, we see infinite ways to help solve for critical workplace visualization challenges," he said.

The areas for VR's greatest potential in the enterprise are training, repair, disaster response and collaboration, said Rob Enderle, principal analyst with Enderle Group.

In training, the technology can be used to deliver instructions on using a device on top of the experience of actually using it, thereby providing real-time visual teaching on the job.

Similarly, for disaster response, virtual reality can provide overlays of disaster-preparedness programs, guide users to resources and exits, and suggest courses of action.

In social apps, it can connect remote members of a team and ensure everyone is seeing the same thing; it can also provide real-time updates on team members' personal information and projects.

Looking ahead, though, there's still a need for a single, quintessential VR product to galvanize the industry, Enderle said.

"We really need an iPod-like effort to emerge," he said. "Right now this is more concept than product, and to move forward we need something that is good enough to drive focus."

Also remaining to be addressed are privacy issues, a lack of common focus in the industry and the potential for misuse.

"We haven't thought through the rules that should define the offerings' use, and we lack focus on what the eventual total experience should be," Enderle said.

A key part of Envelop VR's plans is the ability for VR content developers to work and create content while in their own 3D, immersive environment -- something the company calls "VR in VR." By removing the need for developers to go back and forth between 2D tools and 3D environments, the company hopes to improve productivity and enhance the experience both for those creating content and for the end user.

The startup will use its new funding -- from investors at Acequia Capital and High Line Venture Partners, among others -- to continue developing its and to build out its staff. It's planning a fall release for its initial software offering for developers.

It's vying for a place in an arena already occupied by some significant contenders, including Google, Qualcomm and Microsoft, Enderle noted. Success, then, will likely depend on the big companies "getting into each other's way," he said -- "which does happen often."

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Katherine Noyes

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