Just US$100 buys you a ticket to the virtual reality game. Launched at International CES in Las Vegas, the Zeiss VR One lets you drop any 5-inch smartphone into a tray, slip it into a VR headset, and you’re off into a lifelike immersive digital playground. VR has moved from the realm of the ultra-wealthy geek, or the science researcher with a generous lab budget, to a device you can buy on a whim because it’s useful.
Okay, first the caveats. $100 buys the headset with the optics and a smartphone tray. You still have to provide your own smartphone. And by “any 5-inch smartphone”, I mean you currently get a choice of a tray for the 4,7-inch iPhone 6 or the 5,1-inch Samsung Galaxy S5 — although a sharp blade and some epoxy and you could bake your own variant. And by “lifelike”, I mean your world looks like a Prince of Persia cut scene circa 2003.
But, wow, VR tech has come a very long way, very quickly. Using just the processing and display power of a smartphone, the VR One is VR for everyone. You get usable resolution, believable depth and essentially no lag in the virtual environment as you move your head around. Sure, the demo apps are still primitive (it’s really a developer test bed), but Zeiss is assiduously courting developers, and there are some fantastic ideas bubbling under on their developer competition website.
Sure, there’s more sophisticated tech, like the $300 Oculus Rift developer kit, or the Gear VR joint venture with Samsung for $200 (plus a $300 Galaxy Note 4). There are also cheaper options like Google Cardboard and its VR app (okay, it’s largely a do-nothing novelty, but it’s nice to see Google is thinking out the box).
Why should businesses and telecommunications companies be paying attention? Because VR and its close cousin, augmented reality, will revolutionise customer care, sales and training, and put another couple of zeroes on the already insatiable demand for network traffic with yet another explosion in high-definition video streams (and near-zero latency full duplex to boot).
But that’s a solvable engineering problem. What about the business applications?
I visited a banking team recently with a colleague from Internet Solutions’ research and innovation group to demonstrate the Zeiss VR One and share some thoughts on the implications. We weren’t selling this bank anything — we just wanted to talk about something we felt could upend personal banking.
How’s this for an idea? Give every private banking customer a VR headset!
High net worth individuals may want a personal engagement with their bank. The cost to deliver this is high: either a consultant must visit the client at their home or office (low productivity and high travel cost), or the client must come to bank’s office (high cost of office space, inconvenient to client).
Current technology alternatives are poor. A telephone call is cheap to deliver, but lacks punch. It does not feel premium, and does not easily allow demonstration of visual material (brochures, documents). A desktop videoconference is also not premium and, although visual material can be shared, it’s one or the other… while documents are being shared, the consultant loses engagement.
With a VR setup, a banker can be placed in a digital office from wherever they are (green screen tech is cheap). They can work with charts, documents, brochures or videos while maintaining personal client engagement.
Costs? A headset per customer and, on the backend, bandwidth and IT costs such as video capture, processing, streaming and recording and archives. People costs? You can scale up or down the number of service consultant resources as needed, without worrying about the cost of kitting out physical office space, and you can tailor the virtual office on the fly to a client or branding requirement, and once the core tech is implemented, costs to scale it are marginal.
Where the service provided is based on communication and information, VR is a game changer — for customer support, for training, for replacing horrible, room-sized videoconference systems.
My guess is we’re three years from early majority adoption.
- Roger Hislop is an engineer in the research and innovation group at Internet Solutions. He writes here in his private capacity