Virtual reality (VR) offers an experience more immersive than modern cinema and more interactive than console gaming. But for both consumers and businesses, its applications stretch beyond the realm of entertainment.
VR has come a long way from the cardboard headsets Google debuted in 2014, so let’s explore the state of VR in 2023, its commercial and enterprise use cases for businesses, and reasons to be excited about the future of VR.
Immerse yourself in VR
What is virtual reality (VR)?
Virtual reality (VR) is a simulated 3D environment that users can experience, look around, move within, and even interact with using a specialized headset and external sensors and controllers.
Virtual reality isn’t just for gamers—but it may have game-changing applications across entertainment, marketing, remote collaboration, training, and education.
Unlike other forms of media like movies and video games, virtual reality uses wearable hardware to fully immerse the user in the experience. Virtual reality isn’t just for gamers—but it may have game-changing applications across entertainment, marketing, remote collaboration, training, and education.
The technology is primed for major growth over the next decade. Deloitte Global expects the market to increase from $4.2 billion in revenue in 2022 to $7 billion in 2023.
Types of virtual reality
Not all VR experiences are the same, though. Some you can try on your smartphone without moving from your seat, while others require specialized hardware and a dedicated physical space to move around in.
The different types of virtual reality can be put into four categories, which follow the history and evolution of VR as a technology.
1. Non-immersive VR
Non-immersive VR allows you to interact with a virtual environment without removing you from your physical reality. When you play a video game that allows you to control a character in a virtual environment, that’s non-immersive VR.
We rarely think of it as virtual reality, but non-immersive VR acts as an essential baseline for understanding what we consider “true” VR today.
Examples of non-immersive VR include:
- Massive multiplayer online games that allow you to explore a virtual world with virtual characters, like World of Warcraft
- Simulators that mimic a real experience, like Microsoft Flight Simulator
- Game-inspired remote collaboration tools, like Gather, that let employees or event attendees move and interact in a virtual workplace within their browsers
2. Semi-immersive VR
Semi-immersive VR is the simplest form of virtual reality as many of us know it. In most cases, it uses the existing hardware of modern smartphones to match the motion and direction of your phone with the experience.
What makes it semi-immersive is that while it can simulate the sensation of moving through a virtual space, your movement through your physical space isn’t part of the experience.
There are many low-cost headsets that enhance semi-immersive VR, like Google Cardboard, where your smartphone acts as both the display and the processor for VR-enabled mobile apps.
As a result, semi-immersive VR makes a great medium for marketing content, since the barriers are lower for both producing and consuming the content than fully immersive VR.
Examples of semi-immersive VR include:
- Virtual tours of travel destinations, real estate properties, museums, etc.
- Livestreamed events and concerts
- Virtual reality meditation apps with serene visuals and audio
3. Fully immersive VR
Fully immersive VR is the most advanced form of virtual reality and requires specialized hardware. In fully immersive VR, the user wears a headset with either built-in or external sensors to track their movements through physical space and provide a realistic 3D experience.
Previously, fully immersive VR required a steep commitment of more than $2,000 for a top-tier virtual reality device, controllers, a powerful gaming PC or console, and mounted cameras—on top of a dedicated space to set it up. And for all that effort, occasionally tripping over the wire tethered to your headset would still break the immersion.
The release of the Meta Quest 2 headset (formerly Oculus) in 2020 marked a major shift for fully immersive VR, not only bringing the price down in line with smartphones and tablets, but also eliminating the need for a tethered connection and dedicated space, making fully immersive VR more accessible and portable.
New features have been added since then to further the immersion, such as hand tracking that allows you to use your bare hands to interact within VR, and haptic feedback that uses vibrations in the headset and controllers to mimic collision with virtual objects and walls.
Examples of fully immersive VR include:
- Virtual reality video games like the first-person shooter Half-Life: Alyx or budding VR esports like the free-to-play EchoVR
- VR social networks like Meta Horizon Worlds, where you can experience countless different user-generated virtual worlds to meet up, play games, watch movies with other users, attend virtual concerts, or relax
- Remote collaboration experiences replicating face-to-face in-office interactions, like Meta Horizon Workrooms
4. Mixed reality VR
Mixed reality (MR) takes VR in a different direction—instead of placing you in a virtual world, it brings virtual objects into your own world by adding a layer of augmented reality (AR) over a view of your immediate environment.
Mixed reality has many use cases in the future of commerce in particular. Imagine being able to try on an outfit or makeup in a virtual mirror, or view furniture and home décor in your living room.
The simplest forms of mixed reality require only your smartphone’s browser and camera, but many headsets and VR glasses further the experience by interacting with the environment or even recreating an environment in virtual reality.
Examples of mixed reality include:
- Size.Link by Shopify, which lets you visualize the size of any given set of dimensions in your space using your smartphone camera
- High-fidelity 3D models of products that can be projected into your home using your smartphone camera to overcome purchasing questions like “How big is it?” or “Will it match what I already own?”
- Scanning a physical environment and uploading it as digital reconstruction you can quickly and easily make edits and changes to in VR, like the furniture shopping demo below from the Shopify AR/VR team
What if you could bring your home shopping?
Our latest prototype lets you teleport real furniture from the store into a 3D scan of your living room. It’s amazing to experience first hand. 🤩 pic.twitter.com/gAPawRXgGB
— Russ Maschmeyer (@StrangeNative) August 16, 2022
Business and enterprise benefits of VR
As VR catches on with consumers, examples of business and enterprise use cases have begun to emerge, too, some of which we’ve covered above.
These benefits may not be immediately obvious and are still being explored, but there are many examples of VR experiments and prototypes that showcase the potential of VR in the business world by combining immersion and interactivity.
Offering realistic employee training programs without the risks
VR can be used to train employees in risky environments or roles that are difficult to replicate in the physical world. There are already VR platforms like Osso that allow medical professions to practice surgery in a risk-free VR setting.
But even the development of soft skills traditionally taught using classroom environments or learning management systems can be enhanced using VR with scripted interactive scenarios that feel more real than any role play.
Using a VR headset’s built-in microphone, platforms like Talespin are able to offer leadership development training for anything from performance management to building partnerships where you respond using your voice to a virtual partner powered by AI.
Making it easier for customers to “try before you buy”
VR is already sophisticated enough to give users detailed virtual models of physical products that are nearly indistinguishable from the original (or close enough to answer specific questions that would be impossible from a 2D product photo).
Businesses in the home décor and furniture industry can use VR to simulate products in their customers’ homes. You can hire a 3D model designer to create a virtual version of your products, like the bike below, using just photos and then repurpose, edit, or clone that 3D model to use for other virtual experiences.
Capturing deeper data points to understand user behavior in VR
Analytics heavily influence the way businesses improve their user experiences over time, such as heat maps that show you scroll depth on a website, the number of clicks on specific buttons, and average time spent on a page.
With VR, there are more data points to inform decisions, from eye movement to how a user picks up and examines a virtual object.
Retailers can use VR to simulate shopping experiences and track user behavior, such as where they look, what they interact with, and what they purchase, such as in this demo from the Shopify AR/VR team that shows how a VR heat map based on eye tracking might look.
Improving connection and productivity for remote work
According to a 2022 Gallup survey, only two in 10 employees in the US who could work remotely chose to work fully on-site instead.
As remote work becomes a norm, remote collaboration has to follow. While web-based solutions are commonplace, VR solutions are beginning to emerge to facilitate meetings, meetups, team building activities, and even virtual offices.
Meta, a leader in VR, has launched Horizon Workrooms for its Meta Quest headset, which uses mixed reality to bring together your physical workspace and a customizable virtual reality office.
You can create a VR avatar in your likeness, share your computer screen, present, even write on a whiteboard together with your team from different continents and skip the Zoom fatigue.
VR may be virtual, but the benefits are very real
Virtual reality has widespread consumer, commercial, and business applications that have rapidly expanded in recent years. While today we’re nowhere near living out our lives in virtual worlds like a science fiction novel, it would be a mistake to dismiss the value of VR as entertainment and escapism.
The virtual objects and environments may not be real, but the potential for VR definitely is.
Virtual reality FAQ
What is virtual reality?
Virtual reality (VR) is a completely digital world that users can interact with. It is best experienced through a specialized headset and sensors that allow the user to move around in a 3D environment. This type of VR is often used in gaming, allowing the user to explore a virtual world and interact with objects within it, but it can also be used for business applications, such as training simulations.
What are the three types of virtual reality?
Non-immersive VR is the simplest form of virtual reality and does not require a specialized VR headset. Semi-immersive VR is a step up from non-immersive VR and allows the user to control the experiment with limited or no tracking of their physical movement. Fully immersive VR is the most advanced form of virtual reality, where the user wears a headset with built-in or external sensors that track their movements through physical space and provide a realistic 3D experience.
How much does VR cost?
Virtual reality can cost anywhere from $20 to over $2,000 and vary greatly depending on the experience and type of headset and accessories you purchase. Fully immersive VR requires a high-end headset and controllers like the HTC Vive or the Meta Quest 2, with prices starting at $400.
What are good examples of virtual reality?
The best examples of virtual reality today can be found in gaming (Half-Life: Alyx), entertainment (Netflix VR), and social networking (Horizon Worlds) applications, where the strengths of virtual reality may shine.