The Utility of Virtual Reality and Immersive Technology
One of the defining characteristics of the metaverse is its technical complexity, with elements such as blockchain, crypto, NFTs, interoperability, and community creator economy as components. However, to avoid the need to understand this tech jargon, I prefer to think of the metaverse simply as a 3D version of the internet. This in itself, makes the technology a little more accessible and understandable.
However, the question is: is the metaverse all hype? And have we seen the back of it?
Well, I’d say, hold your horse, Tonto, don’t be so quick to write this space off just yet. There are many use cases and real-life examples where a 3D, immersive experience is delivering value and benefits that can not be achieved using conventional technologies or approaches.
Despite the amount of research, data and forecasts available, some companies still believe there is no ROI in the metaverse and that this vision of immersive experiences is still many years away. However, there are plenty of others who believe that there’s something worth pursuing. Here are 9 examples:
- Nike created a VR experience that allowed users to train with LeBron James.
- L’Oréal and Sephora created immersive experiences that allowed users to try on different makeup or that allowed users to purchase makeup products.
- The North Face created a VR experience that allowed users to explore the Himalayas.
- Volvo is using VR to train its employees on how to repair cars. This helps employees learn the skills they need to do their jobs more quickly and efficiently.
- Boeing is using VR to train its pilots on how to fly new aircraft. This helps pilots learn the cockpit layout and procedures more quickly and safely.
- The Home Depot is using VR to help customers visualise how products would look in their homes. This helps customers make more informed decisions about their purchases.
- IKEA is using VR to allow customers to virtually “walk through” its showrooms. This helps customers see how furniture would look in their homes before they buy it.
- Hilton Hotels is using VR to allow customers to virtually “tour” its hotels. This helps customers make more informed decisions about where to stay.
Here’s The Thing: there is already so much interesting stuff happening when you look for the clues that I’m convinced there is merit and potential in the metaverse. That, of course assumes that we are all working to the same definition of “metaverse.” Which isn’t a safe assumption. Take the East versus the West dimension as a simple example.
Take NFTs, or digital tokens. This is the means of exchanging value, ownership and benefits that are a core component of a metaverse ecosystem. In China there is a rule that you cannot resell your NFT for six months after acquiring it, which is different from the liquidity model in the West where you can buy and sell immediately. This immediately creates a barrier for users in a gaming environment who like to buy and sell digital assets as part of their gaming experience.
Additionally, people in China tend to prefer anime and animated avatars to represent themselves online, whereas in Western markets, people tend prefer to have their own faces scanned and use hyper-realistic models based on their own characteristics.
These differences are more cultural than technical, but they have a big influence on the say that the metaverse will evolve in those different markets.
🥽 A study by software firm Ciena claims 78% of business professionals would participate in more immersive experiences such as the metaverse as opposed to boring old video conferencing.
Can VR be better than the real thing?
Although there are myths that VR is bad for the eyes, studies show that it is actually better for the eyes than looking at a phone that is a foot away. This is because a phone forces the back of your eyes to keep squeezing to focus on a nearby object, while the eyes are designed to work best when looking far away. The focal point for a VR device is several meters away, making it more natural for your eyes. VR also helps to create better results in terms of scores because when you are focusing, you study, learn, and remember better. Research into the impact of VR in school classes found that the immersive experience improved concentration by six times.
That’s in education, but similar interesting findings came out of research into the use of VR for advertising purposes. Studies show that they are much more effective than videos and VR ads can increase effectiveness from two to seven times and retention by three times.
This is explained by human behaviour. Since humans are designed to be in 3D spaces, we absorb the most amount of information and feel the most natural when we are in a 3D space. By looking at a piece of paper or a screen, which is 2 dimensional, there is no way to embody yourself into that environment and connect with the information being passed on.
Advertising has started using AI generated avatar creations to identify with their customers by matching their interests, gender, clothing, or appearance and personalising the avatar. With more data collected, each personalised avatar can be matched closer to the prospective buyer and become an increasingly powerful tool to grab and hold a user’s attention.
There’s nothing new in advertisers creating ads featuring individuals that we can relate too. But in the new model, the level of personalisation in dynamic advertising is a whole new game, creating an avatar that shares our individual interests, biases and physical characteristics. This tactic has been around for a while and will only be more effective as more data is collected.
VR for influence, education and manipulation
But there’s another human characteristic in play. Because our brains can’t tell the difference between real and imaginary. In 3D environments, users can spend time discovering and interacting with virtual objects, which creates a different and lasting form of engagement. For example, in a virtual meeting room, a user could pick up a virtual bottle of Coke and examine it. This in itself can leave a lasting impression that’s stronger than simply looking at a 2 dimensional image or video. The next time they pick up a physical bottle of Coke, their brain will recall the experience from the virtual experience.
In a study on the impact of virtual reality on children, where kids visited a lab every weekday and interacted with AI avatars in the form of talking animals, they found that the kids behaviour changed more than that compared to a control group, where kids behaviour didn’t change at all. Although the avatars for the study group were actually operated by the same researchers who were in the room talking to the control group, the results were remarkably different. Throughout the study, the researchers encouraged the kids to listen to their parents more, clean their rooms, go to bed earlier, and the like.
After a month, the parents reported a significant increase of up to 50% or 70% change in the behaviours of the study group. It turns out that the study group listened and engaged with the talking animal avatars that were asking the kids to do things differently. This level of influence is quite strong, which also illustrates the need to use it responsibly. Quite simply, in this example, VR demonstrated a super power.
In another fascinating study to compare the effectiveness of verbal in-person training versus VR training, a bunch of medical students were taught a surgical procedure. Half the group were told what to do. The other half “experienced” the procedure using VR.
The results were astounding. The VR study group had an 80–90% success rate in completing the surgery for real without any assistance, whilst the control training group had a success rate of 0%!
The final example of VR in action for this article is about learning to drive. The biggest driving school in the world is in Beijing. They have half a million new drivers every year. This school uses VR to supplement their driving lessons. With self-study in VR, they were able to help people pass their driving tests in one month instead of the usual two. VR allows for more scenarios, including night driving, rain, snow, and unexpected obstacles like a cat running in front of the car. This type of training is less expensive than having a physical instructor in a real car with a student, which is a one-to-one relationship. One instructor can teach up to 10 students in the simulators, which brings their costs down and allows students to move through their training faster.
I’m no fan of VR headsets and don’t see them as the future. I’m with Tim Cook more than Mark Zuckerberg on this. Apple CEO Cook believes the future is in Augmented Reality, not Virtual Reality. Having said that, there is something in the metaverse for very specific use-cases. Training and education, manufacturing design, mental health and cognitive treatments, customer engagement through immersive experiences. Exactly how this will pan out has yet to be seen. If you remember the 1980s and the very first mobile phones that looked like a house brick and required a small suitcase to hold a battery, then that’s where we are with VR. Nobody envisioned the iPhone back then. Don’t write the metaverse off just yet. It’s easy to be critical.
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