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Opinion: Build your own virtual reality to meet business needs

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I  grew up in the 1980s and ‘90s, when we were promised that the 21st century would include flying cars, effortless space travel and virtual reality worlds to explore. All those ideas remain a part of our shared vision for the future, but most of that technology remains out of reach.

Virtual reality, however, is an increasingly affordable and accessible tool that may already exist in your home. With the release of numerous consumer-grade VR headsets, such technology is now within reach of most businesses and schools.

The limitation is: The VR content you need for your business almost certainly doesn’t exist. The problem would be like the early days of television, when the number of stations was extremely limited. Content that was nonexistent in the early days of TV now supports full-time programming. Niche TV markets at the time now serve millions of viewers.

With VR, we are in the early days of content. Some larger corporations with the ability to outsource VR-resource development have started to use VR for training purposes, but widespread use of VR systems is restricted to 360-degree videos on YouTube and a growing collection of video games.

Business applications also are extremely limited because the VR content creators haven’t figured out the specific needs of specialized sectors yet. But the possibilities are endless. It’s like a digital field of dreams. So, if you want to employ VR for your business, you can build your own tools, applications and content.

As a scientist and an educator, I’m obligated to explore the best ways to ensure student learning objectives, starting me down a path to experimenting with VR for use in the classroom. After diving in, I realized the potential.

As a geologist, the most important skill I teach my students is spatial problem solving. Geologists look at the features around them, both at the Earth’s surface and deep down beneath our feet, then put the puzzle pieces together to solve a problem. The best way to teach spatial problem solving is to take students into the field and immerse them in the problem. In the real world, they can walk around, turn their heads, look around and explore, and their brains are able to put the puzzle pieces in the right locations. It’s natural for our brains to remember where things are located in the world around us. But without being there, that is difficult for students who are in the early stages of learning. That’s where VR can imitate those experiences.

Then I hit a wall: There’s no VR science content available. So, I made my own.

I acquired a VR camera that takes immersive pictures and video and started documenting geologic features that I wanted to show students. Hiking up Mount St. Helens with my VR camera allows me to take students instantly to the site. No expensive travel costs or arduous hikes through the snow. We are there immediately.

I can now take students on a field trip around the United States within minutes that would take weeks in real life. And the future is even more off the rails. We’ve started experimenting with using game engines that run your favorite video games. Imagine an educational video game where students can learn and explore geologic features at increasingly advanced levels. This will never replace the classroom or taking students into the field in person, but it can create a more immersive bridge that connects the classroom and field.

That is only going to happen if we build it first. Only you understand your specific business needs for VR. No one is going to come make the content for you, because they do not understand how to best solve your demands for VR.

If you can dream up a use for VR, you are going to have to make it yourself. If it sounds daunting, you’re right. It is. You’re going to have to learn, and there are several paths to do that.

Can you think of a way that virtual reality would improve your business? If so, you can build it. And if you build it, they will come.

Matthew McKay is associate professor of geology at Missouri State University. He can be reached at matthewmckay@missouristate.edu.

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